The sprawling, 230-member Republican State Central Committee will descend on a Baton Rouge church Saturday to hold its quarterly meeting, during which members will vote for a party chair. The indoors event has prompted concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
The RSCC makes up the infrastructure of the state's Republican Party, and the quarterly meeting is set to take place at Parkview Baptist Church in Baton Rouge on Saturday. The LAGOP told members it will block off some seats in the main auditorium to maintain social distancing and that party staff will “be masked at all times.”
“The section on the far left facing the stage is reserved for members who wish to wear a mask for the entire meeting and who want others seated in their section to also wear masks,” the party said in its agenda message to members.
Eddie Rispone, the GOP donor who lost a close race for governor in 2019, raised concerns in an email to members earlier this week, saying Parkview has a 600-person capacity, too small “for a meeting with the size and our membership and staff.” He said Crowne Plaza confirmed it could have accommodated the committee meeting.
After the state party sent out its message outlining the COVID protocols – and after the party subsequently said masks would be required – Rispone said they didn’t satisfy his concerns. He said RSCC meetings were poorly attended last year, and said the way this meeting was handled “discourages participation.” He said questions and concerns should have been answered “weeks ago.”
“We have known about this meeting for months,” Rispone said. “Other venues were available where we could’ve had this meeting safely and responsibly.”
Rispone, a major donor to the party, jumped in the race to unseat current LAGOP Chairman Louis Gurvich in late December, but abruptly dropped out earlier this month. State Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, has since jumped in the race for party chair.
The meeting comes after two high-profile Republicans, Congressman-elect Luke Letlow and former state Rep. Steve Carter, died from complications of COVID-19 in recent weeks. And meanwhile, the state recently confirmed the presence of a new variant of the virus that transmits between people more easily.
Despite creating a specific section of the auditorium for people who wish to wear a mask and want others to wear a mask around them, Gurvich said in a text message that “masks will be required except for anyone exempted under state and local guidelines.”
“For example, anyone who has a medical exemption from wearing a mask will be asked not to sit in the ‘mask-only’ section,” Gurvich said. “They will have to sit in another section.”
Gurvich didn’t respond to further inquiries.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ mask mandate orders people to wear a face covering when “inside a commercial establishment or any other building or space open to the public, whether indoor or outdoor.” Exceptions include children, people delivering a speech, those consuming food or drinks and people with a medical condition that prevents the wearing of a face covering.
Health officials have said people with a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask should not be out in public because of their risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19.
The meeting will feature elections of officers, including chair, as well as consideration of endorsements for candidates in the 2nd and 5th congressional districts. On Friday, members were invited to an orientation meeting and reception at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry’s offices in downtown Baton Rouge, according to the agenda message sent to members.
State Rep. Barry Ivey, a Central Republican, said he’ll attend the meeting and wear a mask. But he said he may not stay in the “mask-only” section, and added he thinks people will have the opportunity to protect themselves from the virus.
“I think there’s going to be plenty of opportunity, even with 200 people, in a large church to be able to spread out,” he said.
Mike Bayham, the secretary of the state Republican party, said there will likely be upwards of 170 members attending the meeting, plus some who may send a proxy. He said he was concerned about the spread of the virus at the meeting.
“I think we probably should have found a bigger space,” said Bayham, who will be up for re-election as secretary of the party Saturday. “I’m greatly concerned. I’ve had COVID and it almost killed me.”