Houston officials on Wednesday canceled the Texas Republican Party's in-person convention, saying the spread of the coronavirus made it impossible to hold the event as scheduled.
Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city's lawyers exercised provisions in the contract that the Texas GOP signed to rent the downtown convention center for a three-day event to have started July 16, with committee meetings earlier in the week. Turner, a Democrat, previously resisted calls to cancel the convention and insisted Wednesday that his decision wasn't driven by politics.
"The public health concerns outweighed anything else," Turner said.
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State Republican chair James Dickey said the party was weighing its legal options and accused Turner of trying to deny the GOP's "critical electoral function."
The fight over whether thousands of Republican supporters will converge on downtown Houston as the city's hospitals are overwhelmed is a snapshot of the broader political tensions that have underscored Texas' handling of the pandemic.
Gov. Greg Abbott, the state's top Republican, had publicly deferred to state party leaders who last week voted by a 2-to-1 margin to go forward with an in-person event, though he had not committed to attending the convention.
Abbott has faced pressure from both sides while managing a coronavirus crisis that has surged in recent weeks. In May, he lifted restrictions on gatherings and began to reopen business over the objections of Democratic leaders in several Texas cities. The numbers of confirmed virus cases and deaths began to spiral in June and reached new daily highs this week.
Last week, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he was through listening to the nation's top infectious disease expert, saying Dr. Anthony Fauci "doesn't know what he's talking about" over comments that some states reopened too fast.
But even Patrick, who is chairman of Trump's reelection campaign in Texas, expressed misgivings about his party pressing forward with the convention.
The Texas Medical Center, a consortium of Houston hospitals, has moved into surge capacity for its intensive-care beds. Texas reported more than 10,000 new confirmed cases statewide for the first time on Tuesday. The Texas Medical Association had already withdrawn as a convention sponsor and urged organizers to cancel.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Abbott in recent weeks has moved to close bars again, restrict the size of outdoor gatherings, and institute a broad mandate requiring people to wear masks in public.
Dickey said in his statement Wednesday that organizers had planned to institute daily temperature scans, provide masks, and install hand sanitizer stations. Echoing the criticism among some conservatives to the government's coronavirus response, Dickey argued attendees at any convention would have more protection than the tens of thousands of protesters who gathered in downtown Houston following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer pressed his knew into Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes.
Turner "does not want Houston to get back to work," Dickey said. "He is not able to move forward and rise to these new challenges."
Speaking Wednesday afternoon, the mayor said he waited to act because he had hoped state Republicans would cancel the event on their own.
He added that he thought of his late mother, who worked as a hotel maid, and whether others in her position would face a heightened risk of infection if the convention went forward.
"No one wanted to step in and be the heavy and to say no, and then run the risk of being accused of being political," he said. "But if after all of that, you still refuse to recognize the public health danger to everyone involved, then I am still the mayor."
If all other efforts for a face-to-face convention fail, Dickey said a convention "using online technologies" would be held.
"In the coming days, we will evaluate all legal remedies available to us to fight back against the unequal treatment Mayor Turner has chosen to inflict on conservatives. We will keep our delegates, alternates, and other convention attendees posted as we pursue those remedies," Dickey said.
Meanwhile, hours after Turner's announcement, the chief administrative official of Montgomery County, in Houston's conservative suburbs, offered to host the convention instead.
The national Republican Party is also pushing to have an in-person convention this year, moving the event from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, after North Carolina officials would not provide guarantees sought by President Donald Trump. But in recent days, a growing number of Republican senators said they would skip the convention.
Texas Democrats held an online convention in June, and national Democrats plan to hold an almost entirely virtual convention in August.
Weber reported from Austin, Texas.