By NOMAAN MERCHANT and PAUL J. WEBER Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — The Republican Party of Texas changed course Monday night and accepted a virtual convention after courts refused to force Houston, hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, to let the party stick to its original plans of a massive indoor gathering.
The decision came after the state GOP was left with few options. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, said last week he directed city lawyers to terminate the convention contract because he believed the three-day event could not be held safely.
The party sued, alleging breach of contract, but lost an appeal at the Texas Supreme Court on Monday.
The convention typically draws thousands of attendees and was scheduled to begin this week. Following the losses in court, the party’s executive committee voted overwhelmingly Monday night to move the event online.
“The Party argues it has constitutional rights to hold a convention and engage in electoral activities, and that is unquestionably true,” the Supreme Court wrote in its opinion. “But those rights do not allow it to simply commandeer use of the Center.”
Turner denied that the convention was canceled due to political differences and cited the potential risk to service workers and first responders if the virus spread through Houston’s downtown convention center.
State District Judge Daryl L. Moore on Monday afternoon denied another party request for an injunction forcing Houston to allow the convention.
Texas has set daily records in recent days for the number of COVID-19 deaths and confirmed cases. Top officials in Houston have called for the city to lock back down as area hospitals strain to accommodate an onslaught of patients.
State District Judge Larry Weiman last week sided with Turner, citing Houston statistics that show major hospitals exceeding their base intensive-care capacity due to an influx of COVID-19 patients.
The Texas Medical Association withdrew its sponsorship of the state GOP convention and asked organizers to cancel in-person gatherings. As the virus has surged throughout the state in June and July, Gov. Greg Abbott, the state’s top Republican, has reversed some business reopenings and broadly required the use of face masks.
State GOP chair James Dickey had insisted that organizers could hold the event safely.
Prior to Turner’s move to cancel the convention, Dickey said the party had planned to institute daily temperature scans, provide masks, and install hand sanitizer stations.
State Democrats held an all-online convention in June. Nationally, the Republican Party is moving forward with plans for an in-person convention in August to be held in Jacksonville, Florida, though some GOP elected officials have said they won’t attend for health concerns.