How Texas Republicans Politicized the Coronavirus Pandemic
By the time that Sylvester Turner, the mayor of Houston, shut down the Republican Party of Texas Convention—the enormous biennial meeting of Texas Republicans, which was scheduled to take place this week—the event had been delayed once before. The convention had originally been planned for May, but COVID-19 had arrived in the United States, and the Republican Party moved quickly to do the right thing. “We are going to make sure that we flatten the curve,” James Dickey, the chairman of the R.P.T., said. “It is the duty of all Texans to take deliberate action to prevent the spread of coronavirus.” When the Party announced that the convention would have to wait until July, no one cried politics. It was early March, and no one had yet uttered the words “Wuhan Virus.” Donald Trump had yet to embark on a campaign characterizing the national response to the pandemic in terms of toughness rather than preparedness, in which rallies and conventions serve as a show of strength and defiance.
At the start of the pandemic in the U.S., it seemed as if Texas was going to be spared the worst. There were outbreaks in rural areas of the state, mostly centered around meat-packing plants and prisons, but those populations were isolated. Once Trump prioritized getting back to work, posting tweets that urged governors to “liberate” their constituents, Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, started reopening the state’s economy. Just a month had passed since it had first shut down. When municipalities asked for the ability to require masks in their cities, or to follow their own schedules for reopening, Abbott refused. When an owner of a hair salon disobeyed orders to shut down, the state’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, paid her seven-thousand-dollar bail. During an interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, Patrick said that the state should continue opening, while people over the age of seventy should take care of themselves. “Don’t sacrifice the country,” he said. “Don’t ruin this great American dream.”
As part of the reopening process, the rescheduled Republican convention would proceed as planned. The George R. Brown Convention Center, a huge glass-and-steel building in downtown Houston, was still available. The July date, the R.P.T. would later note, was well within the C.D.C. window that had been established back in March. A smattering of events started to show up on the Party’s Web site. Delegates could attend “lunch and learns” and hear speeches from, among others, Abbott, Patrick, and the Texas land commissioner, George P. Bush (the son of Jeb). There would also be a gala banquet and a breakfast to celebrate grassroots activists. And then, as Texas moved into the last phase of its reopening, and unmasked people packed into restaurants and bars over the Memorial Day weekend, COVID-19 came back.
The first indisputable sign of trouble for Republicans might have been the Kaufman County district meeting. When the state convention had been delayed, Dickey had encouraged district meetings to be rescheduled as well, in the name of safety. Kaufman County, which is just outside of Dallas, had selected a date in early June and convened their meeting in a church. Masks were recommended but “NOT required.” The church was allowed to fill only to fifty-per-cent capacity, and there was ample hand sanitizer available. Jimmy Weaver, a mustachioed district-level delegate, opened the meeting with a joke about the pandemic. “In one way, the Democrats did us a favor,” he said. “They cured the coronavirus!” A few days later, one of the attendees, a seventy-five-year-old man named Bill Baker, fell ill. By the end of the month—on June 25th—he died of COVID-19.
This time, however, the R.P.T. did not reschedule its convention. Even as the state Democratic Party took its convention online, the Republicans forged ahead. The day after Baker’s death, the executive director of the Party, Kyle Whatley, told an online town-hall meeting, “All systems are go, folks. This is happening.”
Outside of the Republican Party’s leadership, however, concerns about the convention were growing. It would be a six-thousand-person indoor meeting—an event that would fill hotels and restaurants around the venue—and was scheduled to take place at the current epicenter of the outbreak. By the end of June, there were more than thirty thousand documented cases of COVID-19 in Harris County, which contains Houston. A mandatory mask order had been in place in the city since June 19th, requiring businesses to enforce mask-wearing, but not requiring them for individuals. The Republican Party, because it was not a business, would not have to enforce the rule.
On June 23rd, Abbott issued an order limiting the size of outdoor gatherings but put no limits on those held indoors. A week later, the Texas Medical Association called for the G.O.P. to cancel the convention. On the same day, Turner, the Houston mayor, rejected calls that he cancel the gathering. He would leave it up to the Republican organizers, he said, to make “wise decisions.”
On July 2nd, Dickey called an emergency meeting on Zoom to discuss the convention. “This is an unprecedented time, and we face unprecedented challenges,” he said, while commenters on the live stream joked about technical difficulties. (“Who that hacking up a lung?” someone asked, while one of the delegates coughed. “Please mute when you’re not talking,” someone else wrote.) A few delegates advocated holding the convention online. Most, however, urged the Party to press forward. “I think the biggest optic we need is within our own party,” Randall Dunning, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, said. “What we need is to demonstrate courage…. We are being perceived as pushed around by the media. We need to stand up for these things.” The coronavirus, he added, was “one of the most feeble epidemics ever.” Dunning, who has been known to brag about wearing body armor, is an outspoken party member, but his position was widely supported. The controversy over the convention was not about safety, he said, it was about politics.
There is a kind of machismo inherent in taking risks during a pandemic—an attitude that has been on display nationally every time Trump plans (or attempts to plan) a rally—which is particularly potent in a state like Texas, where the appeal of strongman politics mixes easily with the come-and-take-it troublemaking of gun-rights circles. The Web site for the R.P.T. notes that “early Texans lived, loved and died entirely by their own efforts without relying on government to fulfill their needs. Just like modern Texans, early settlers believed in families, churches and neighbors, not in bureaucracy. That sense of self-respect and self-reliance is still the envy of the world.”
Texas, which has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, refused to implement the Affordable Care Act and has repeatedly cut the budget for Medicaid and education funding. (There is also no state income tax.) Leaders speak the language of individual freedoms and emphasize strength over social compacts. Protesters here will decry a mask-wearing requirement as nearly Communist, and yet their beloved sense of self-reliance has landed the state in the middle of a dark comedy that echoes the situations in authoritarian-led nations like Brazil (where the President, Jair Bolsonaro, used a gay slur to describe mask-wearing, before contracting COVID-19 himself). Fierce independence, when valued above all else, it seems, is almost as potent as the density of New York when it comes to spreading a virus.