As the saying goes, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Nothing could be truer when it comes to the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, which is almost certain to result in unnecessary Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
Last year’s gathering in Maryland was the definition of a superspreader event, with one infected attendee getting a handshake away from the president. One year into the pandemic and 500,000 deaths later, thousands of conferencegoers descended on Orlando, Florida, this past weekend despite the state and county experiencing a concerning increase in cases that signals a potential new surge in the area.
Based on guidance issued by the Trump administration in 2020, on Orlando’s positivity rate and on its seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 people, gatherings in the area should be limited to 25 people, preferably outdoors. But despite the rising cases, the deaths and exhausted health care workers, the conference organizers chose Florida because, as Gov. Ron DeSantis states, the state is an “oasis of freedom” without the restrictions that are in place in Maryland and much of the rest of the country.
But the state’s Orange County Health Department stated that conference officials did not get in touch with them to review safety measures, a troubling sign that no lessons were learned from last year’s CPAC.
The conference was held at the Hyatt Regency Orlando, which has been at capacity (1,400 people) and tried to enforce a mask mandate but clearly lacked control given the close seating, the lack of masks by most attendees and the flagrant taunting of the value of masks by prominent speakers, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
The hotel chain received numerous complaints for hosting the conference, prompting an official statement that defended its decision while emphasizing that indoor mask requirements would be enforced by hotel personnel.
Behind the troubling images and rhetoric emerging from the conference are the number of new cases involving the more transmissible and more deadly variants — 10 Orlando residents tested positive in early February for B.1.1.7 (the variant believed to have originated in the U.K.), which some feel is an underestimate. And even less visible to the cameras are the hundreds of essential workers who desperately need to work to barely make a living wage (minimum wage is currently $8.65 an hour in Florida): taxi drivers, hotel attendants, housekeepers, waitstaff, cooks and many others who can’t afford to catch a deadly virus but will certainly be casualties of the blatant indifference exhibited by conference organizers and attendees.
The majority of essential workers are persons of color who have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic nationwide, and unfortunately, despite urging from local businesses, these essential workers are still not yet eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations in Florida.
Like many cities, Orlando’s economy has been devastated, leaving hotels and other businesses in a difficult predicament: Orlando is trying to send signals that its hospitality industry is open for business, but certainly not to thousands of people who are proud to ignore basic public health measures such as wearing a mask, keeping a safe distance and respecting the health concerns of others.
CPAC itself was a clear superspreader event, but more troubling will be the exponential spread from attendees flying or driving back to their home cities and states, possibly exposing anyone they are in contact with to a more infectious and more deadly variant of the virus.
As numbers across the country decrease and more Americans are vaccinated, the threat of complacency has been highlighted by public health officials, which makes the timing and irresponsibility of the conference even more astonishing. Unfortunately, our country has come to accept the repeat behavior that has placed so many Americans at risk — at rallies, campaign events, conventions — but the timing of this event after a year that has seen losses like no other in modern history makes this voluntary behavior equivalent to medical malpractice.
If there was one silver lining in a sea of cognitive dissonance, surprisingly it came in the words of former President Donald Trump. In his first public address since losing office, he counseled his audience, “… So, everybody go get your shot.”
Of course, that was something he appeared reticent to do the entire time he was in office, likely worried that he would upset his base, which had expressed incredible skepticism about the Covid-19 vaccines. Unfortunately, Trump stopped short of acknowledging the lives lost or anything resembling support of the overwhelming science behind the effectiveness of masks and limiting large gatherings — such as the conference itself.
But as more tests turn out positive and new households are gripped with the fear that millions of Americans have already felt, health care workers will still stand by, ready to help, to heal and to try to nurture those affected through the process, regardless of their political background.