HOUSTON (CN) — A federal judge Friday ordered Houston to let the Texas Republican Party go ahead with its in-person convention in a city-owned building after Mayor Sylvester Turner canceled it out of Covid-19 concerns.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, a Ronald Reagan appointee, ordered the city to let the party hold its convention in the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown on July 18 and 19, and July 25 and 26 if necessary.
The party’s attorney, Jared Woodfill, said in court filings the first day of the party’s online convention on Thursday was “a disaster because a virtual platform cannot support the work the Republican Party of Texas does at its convention.”
The technical problems led the Republicans on Friday to take a break from their convention until Saturday and put off a vote for party chair until Sunday, the Texas Tribune reported.
But Turner vowed to appeal as soon as Hughes issued a written order, as the judge made his ruling from the bench late Friday.
“We are in the midst of a pandemic, a public health crisis. More people are being admitted to our hospitals and ICUs, and more people are dying. The @TexasGOP is being totally irresponsible in continuing to push for an indoor, in-person convention,” Turner tweeted Friday.
Hughes authorized the in-person convention after he allowed the Texas Republican Party on Friday to join a federal lawsuit brought by Houston Republican activist Steven Hotze, the lead plaintiff, on June 16.
More than 1,000 Texas residents and business owners joined Hotze as plaintiffs, claiming business closures Governor Greg Abbott ordered in April to curb the spread of Covid-19 were unconstitutional.
Hotze and the Texas Republican Party asked Hughes to step in after their efforts to force Houston to let the convention proceed failed Monday in state court.
Houston First, a government corporation established by the Houston City Council, manages the convention center. Citing the city’s spike in Covid-19 cases, it told the Texas Republican Party on June 8 it had canceled the contract authorizing the event.
The Republicans claim in court filings Mayor Turner had Houston First use a loophole in the contract to cancel it, and claimed the Democratic mayor violated their First Amendment rights to express their political beliefs.
They say the convention cancellation smacked of political gamesmanship because Turner approved a June 2 protest over George Floyd’s killing by police for which 60,000 people gathered in downtown Houston.
“The fact that Mayor Turner encouraged large protests while canceling the [Texas Republican convention] suggests that Mayor Turner’s regulation of speech was motivated by the viewpoint and content of the speech. Accordingly, Defendants’ actions are presumptively unconstitutional,” Woodfill wrote in a June 13 motion for a temporary restraining order.
Before Houston canceled the convention, the Republicans had planned to provide masks for all the convention’s attendees, take their temperatures and deep clean after every meeting.
The number of Covid-19 cases in Texas went over 300,000 this week and Texans killed by the coronavirus grew to 3,735, with a record high 154 deaths on Thursday, the third straight day of triple digits, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Houston is a hot spot and its hospitals are converting space into ICU units to deal with the influx of patients. It is the seat of Harris County, which leads the state with nearly 52,000 cases.
An 86-person medical Army unit arrived in the city this week to help hospitals treat Covid-19 patients.
The spike in Texas cases led Abbott on July 2 to order all residents over age 10 to wear masks indoors and outside if there is no space for social distancing and close down bars June 26 after he allowed them to reopen May 22.