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Turner hopes GOP reconsiders plan to hold convention in Houston amid COVID surge

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 7/3/2020 By Jasper Scherer and Dylan McGuinness, Staff writers

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday the city will step in and determine which safety precautions the Texas Republican convention will have to follow when it meets in downtown Houston later this month.

His remarks followed a Thursday night vote by the state party’s executive committee to carry on with its plans to have thousands of members gather at the George R. Brown Convention Center July 16 to 18 despite concern about a local spike in COVID-19 cases.

Following the vote, the GOP said it was prepared to implement safety precautions at the convention, including thermal checks at entryways and “deep” cleanings in between meetings. And the convention will follow Gov. Greg Abbott’s order requiring Texans to wear masks, which the party had not planned to enforce when it was just a recommendation.

State and local party officials did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Turner has said he believes the event should be virtual but had rejected calls to cancel it himself over concerns about politicizing the situation. He struck a more aggressive tone in a statement issued by his office Friday.

“Now that the executive committee has made the decision to move forward, the city will decide what steps must be taken to protect the health and safety of employees, visitors, and the general public,” Turner said. “At the very minimum, masks will be a requirement for attendance and service.”

The mayor is considering other requirements, as well, but it was not immediately clear what those options are. Turner said he still hopes party leadership will reconsider its plans amid a troubling rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. In late June, one in every four Houstonians who were tested for COVID-19 had the virus, a much higher rate than the preceding months.

Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said the party would meet again Sunday to vote on a rule change that would allow party officials to implement what Dickey called an “emergency fallback contingency plan” to move the convention online.

Gov. Greg Abbott, the state’s highest-elected Republican, declined to stake out a position on the convention during an interview on FOX 26 Thursday.

In a virtual meeting Thursday night, the GOP executive committee voted 40 to 20 to go forward with the in-person event. Several thousand people are expected to attend.

The prospect of an in-person convention has stirred unrest among Houstonians worried that a three-day influx of thousands of delegates and party officials would exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus. Houston has experienced a spike in COVID cases — accompanied by a steady rise in hospitalizations — since Abbott last month began lifting restrictions intended to contain the virus.

The Texas Medical Association, a nonprofit medical society of about 53,000 physicians and students that was sponsoring the convention, urged party leaders earlier this week to call off the in-person event. The group pulled its sponsorship Thursday evening after the executive committee vote.

Hospitality workers at the convention center and adjacent Hilton Americas-Houston hotel have expressed unease over their health insurance plan, which is set to cover workers during the convention but will expire at the end of the month, before they could be done paying hospital bills if they contract COVID while working at the convention.

Carolyn Campbell, spokeswoman for Houston First Corp., the city’s convention arm, said Friday that any Hilton employee who is called back into work will have insurance for June and July, as long as Houston’s disaster declaration does not end. Officials with United Here Local 23, the hotel workers’ union, were not available for comment Friday.

The convention agency has said it lacks contractual authority to force the GOP to adopt new measures, and it deferred to the mayor for implementing new restrictions. Campbell said the agency is going to make precautions available and expects the party to do its part to keep people safe.

There will be thermal cameras for temperatures checks installed at entries, though Houston First cannot require the GOP to use them on every attendee, according to Campbell. Other precautions include: 60 permanent hand sanitizing stations; sneeze guards at all concession and concierge areas; more than 500 N-95 masks for staff members; and elevators will be capped at two people per ride.

Some members of the Texas GOP’s executive committee said during Thursday’s virtual meeting that they are worried about attending the event and are aware of delegates who are planning to skip the convention over health concerns.

Others pushed for the convention to continue as planned, with one committee member saying attendees would “put on the armor of God and we'll go do our duty.” Party officials will pick delegates for the national Republican convention and approve the state party’s platform at the convention.

Turner, a Democrat, issued an executive order last month that gave him the power to cancel the event, before removing that authority when he updated his order Monday. He has not responded to an inquiry about why he amended the order, and criticized the Chronicle for reporting on it.

The Texas Democratic Party held a virtual convention in early June with guest speakers that included Joe Biden, the presumptive presidential nominee, and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

jasper.scherer@chron.com

dylan.mcguinness@chron.com

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