Houston First Corp. cancels Texas GOP convention under guidance from Mayor Turner

Six-thousand delegates were expected to attend the State of Texas Republican Party convention July 16-18. (Courtesy Visit Houston)
Six-thousand delegates were expected to attend the State of Texas Republican Party convention July 16-18. (Courtesy Visit Houston)

Six-thousand delegates were expected to attend the State of Texas Republican Party convention July 16-18. (Courtesy Visit Houston)

The contract for the annual State Republican Party of Texas Convention was terminated July 8, according to a letter from Houston First Corp., the entity in charge of the George R. Brown convention center and other city-owned venues.

The letter came after days of debate between the delegation and city officials who said the potential gathering of 6,000 people posed a threat to health and safety of attendees and workers due to the coronavirus outbreak. The event was set to take place July 16-18.

"What was the lynchpin for me was when one of the people on my staff, combined with my sister, said to me 'your mom was a maid working at one of these hotels. Would you, as mayor, still allow the convention to go forward knowing it poses a health threat to her?' And the answer is no," Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Turner said previously that he wanted to avoid any specific action to cancel the event because he said he did not want to “politicize” the decision. He did, however, outline a set of health protocols for convention organizers to follow.

The organizers were already planning to implement some of the mayor’s safety demands, including temperature checks, revised floor plans and masks distribution, Chair of Texas Republican Party James Dickey said in a July 8 statement.

In the days leading up to the decision, union representatives from various groups tasked with staffing the event called on local leaders to enforce strict safety protocols. They also asked that Houston First continue health insurance coverage after the event for workers who were furloughed but would have been called back temporarily to staff the convention. Although negotiations are ongoing, insurance coverage for furloughed workers was set to expire at the end of July, said Bo Delp, senior political advisor for Unite Here Local 123, the union affiliate representing hospitality workers.

“What happens on August 1st if they’re in the ICU? Who pays for those medical bills?” Delp said.

Dickey said he saw the event as a chance to create work for employees of an industry that has suffered significantly during the pandemic. According to Delp, staffing at the Marriott Marquis and Hilton of the Americas, the two hotels owned by Houston First, is down to 5% its normal staffing levels.

“Is the city of Houston never going to get back to work? Is the city of Houston never to hold another convention at their cavernous convention Ccnter?,” Dickey said. “This is an opportunity to show how to get back to work safely and how to hold conventions safely with cutting-edge technology.”

Gracie Akram, a 66-year-old janitorial worker for the convention center said it was a difficult position to be in given the lack of strict safety protocols and the potential loss of health insurance coverage.

“I’m weighing the decision to say no because of my age group,” Akram said the day before the announcement was made. ”I actually need my job, but if I have to make a decision between making sacrifices until this pandemic blows over, I will make the decision not to go.”

Some of the criticism leveled against the decision, which Houston City Council Member Mike Knox called on July 8 “political theater," centered on Turner’s participation in the 60,000-plus demonstrations honoring Houstonian George Floyd.

“After allowing tens of thousands of protestors to peaceably assemble in the same city, in the same area, without any of the safety precautions and measures we have taken, he is seeking to deny a political party’s critical electoral function that should be equally protected under the constitution,” Dickey said.

Houston Emergency Medical Director Dr. David Persse said that canceling an outdoor protest presented more logistical challenges than canceling an indoor convention. He said he chose to work with organizers by giving out safety supplies and guidance because he knew that protests are protected under the First Amendment and would likely change location if banned from a certain area.

“It’s just not practical,” Persse said in regards to attempting to ban a protest.

Persse also referenced guidance from U.S. Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, who said indoor gatherings present a more significant threat to public health than outdoor gatherings.

Dickey stated that the convention is looking into the legal implications of canceling the event and if they will have any bearing on the contract originally signed between Houston First and the State Republican Party of Texas Convention.
By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.


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