In a couple of weeks, the Texas Republican Party is set to hold its statewide convention in Houston, the city that has been worst hit by the state’s COVID-19 surge. In an editorial in the Austin-American Statesman today, the paper argues that’s a bad idea. Hospitalizations have quadrupled since Memorial Day in the Gulf Coast city, and the region’s intensive care unit beds are nearly full. As in Dallas, Houston officials “have implored residents to stay home.” And yet, on July 16, around 6,000 Texans are set to descend on the city for the Texas GOP convention.
The deadly consequences of such an event are not theoretical. A month ago, countywide Republican organizations began holding their own local conventions to prepare for the main event later this month. In Kaufman County on June 6, longtime GOP activist Bill Baker convened his local GOP convention. As Texas Monthly reports, the decision to hold the event would prove fateful:
Figures like Baker make the Texas GOP run at its most fundamental level. He had been a party activist for twenty years, he wrote on his Facebook page in March, seven of which he had served as the chairman of the Kaufman County GOP. This year’s county convention was one of many local and state conventions he had been to over the years, but it would also be his last. On June 11, Baker was admitted to the hospital. He had contracted COVID-19. On June 25, while being intubated, he had a heart attack and died. He was 75.
Baker’s preventable death is a tragedy. He was a deeply committed Texas citizen, a father, and a grandfather. There is no clear evidence that he caught the virus from the Kaufman County convention, though the timing of his symptoms match with the common incubation period of the virus. But what is perhaps as troubling as Baker’s death is his county party’s response to it. “When he died,” Texas Monthly reports, “the Kaufman County party announced Baker’s death by saying only that he had a ‘heart attack.’”
That omission of the cause of Baker’s death frames the political question that faces the Texas governor heading into this month’s convention. Greg Abbott’s bungling of the COVID-19 response in Texas is, in part, symptomatic of his desire to both placate those in his own party who denied the real threat of the disease and to enact measures to stop the spread. This approach has been proven a disaster, as it has managed to neither stop the spread nor spare the economy.
The Texas GOP convention presents Abbott with another rubber-meets-the-road moment when he must decide between what is politically advantageous and what will keep Texans safe. Will Abbott allow the convention to go ahead, putting thousands of lives at risk, or will he admit to the faithful that it is past time to take COVID-19 seriously and cancel the convention?