More than 1,000 Masons from across Texas are on their way to Waco for an annual meeting of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Texas in what is expected to be among the largest indoor gatherings in Waco during the pandemic that continues to rage unchecked.
While Masonic officials promise they will be taking appropriate precautions against the coronavirus, the group is set to arrive Thursday, two days after McLennan County set a daily record with 467 COVID-19 cases and 181 people hospitalized with the disease. While 153 of Tuesday’s reported cases are older, previously unreported cases, the 314 new cases still represent a record.
“Many events have been canceled this year because of COVID-19 and we considered canceling this year,” Masonic Grand Master Paul Underwood said. “But we visited with the governor’s office and we are following all the governor’s orders on social distancing, masking, hand sanitizing, signage and all other protocols expected for an event like this. And we are under the 50% occupancy rate for our facility.”
The ornate auditorium at the Grand Lodge of Texas at 715 Columbus Ave. has a 3,500-person capacity, Underwood said. By limiting the attendance to about 1,000 members, the group will be able practice proper social distancing, he said. Normally, about 3,000 Masons attend the “grand annual communication,” he said.
The Grand Lodge of Texas has about 65,000 members statewide, Underwood said, acknowledging that many decided to stay home this year out of concerns for the pandemic. Because of that, for the first time, Masonic officials will “plug in” much of the gathering so those who chose not to attend can participate via teleconference, Underwood said.
In a letter to members statewide, Underwood assured members that ritual portions of the grand communication will not be shown to those participating remotely.
This is the 185th grand communication of the Grand Lodge of Texas, which has met in Waco for about 100 years and in the current building since 1947.
Underwood said the three-day event is really only two full days worth of meetings, with the event kicking off Thursday afternoon with the “pomp and circumstance” of the opening session. Only about 500 members are expected to attend the opening session, with the remaining members coming to town for Friday’s full-day session. Saturday’s session will be a half day, also, Underwood said.
Carla Pendergraft, director of marketing for the Waco Convention Center and Visitors Bureau, said many conventions set for Waco this year were canceled because of the pandemic. Those that did proceed at the Waco Convention Center were limited to 300 people because of the governor’s emergency orders limiting locations to half of capacity.
She said her office has worked with the Grand Lodge of Texas for years and provides them with local contacts, coupon books and visitors’ guides to enhance their stay in Waco.
Kelly Craine, spokesperson for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District, said everyone, including the Masons, need to be aware of the risks involved when going out, especially to indoor settings with large groups.
“The important thing for people to remember is that every time you go out there is a risk,” Craine said, adding that she was a member of the International Order of the Rainbow for Girls, a Masonic youth service organization. “There were more than 400 new cases today. That is a record. People need to be aware that it is widespread. It is more than widespread. It is everywhere. Wherever you go, you can assume that someone around you has been exposed to COVID.”
Update: An earlier version of this story misstated the number for the vaccination hotline. It is 254-750-5606.
The first large-scale public COVID-19 vaccination clinic in McLennan County gave shots to 424 people Tuesday, as the county reported a record number of hospitalizations and a record number of new cases.
The clinic will administer 1,500 vaccinations as it continues through Thursday at the Waco Convention Center. All the available doses were called for less than half an hour after the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District opened up registration Sunday afternoon. Recipients showed up for their staggered appointment times Tuesday and made their way through a queue spread through multiple rooms to prevent crowding. After getting the shot, they took a seat and waited 15 minutes in case of any side-effects. Volunteers from McLennan Community College’s nursing school, the Waco Family Health Center and Waco Fire Department helped run the clinic.
The public health district reported 467 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, though 153 were cases from previous weeks that had gone unreported. The remaining 314 cases mark a new record for cases reported in a single day and bring the number of active cases to 1,305. The overall total stands at 21,296 McLennan County residents who have tested positive for COIVD-19.
There were a record 181 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the county Tuesday, including 23 on ventilators and 108 who are McLennan County residents.
The health district also announced four more residents of the county have died because of the disease, bringing the death toll to 315. The four whose deaths were announced Tuesday range in age from 56 to 108.
While the ongoing vaccination clinic is booked solid, another will start as soon as the health district receives another shipment of vaccines, spokesperson Kelly Craine said. The health district expects to have about 24 hours of notice before the next shipment comes, and will give vaccine hopefuls 24 hours’ notice that registration will reopen.
Before registration for the current clinic opened Sunday, the city’s information technology department spent Saturday setting up the registration system and trying to ensure the website would not crash, something that happened in other counties, Craine said.
“In Harris County their website crashed and their phone lines crashed,” she said. “I didn’t think phone lines could crash anymore. San Antonio was out in like nine minutes.”
One of the few people who called the health district to register over the phone, rather than online, had to do so because their house lost power during Sunday’s snow storm.
“We had call center people ready to go for the entire day, from noon to 6,” Craine said. “It took 25 minutes.”
More than 5,000 people signed up for email notifications by texting “vaccine” to 22828 and providing an email address to be notified of the next shipment of vaccines. Craine said that system quickly became overwhelmed, and the public health district will use other outreach methods for the next round.
On Tuesday the city activated a public information hotline at 750-5606. Callers can select English or Spanish and get updates, including the information about testing and vaccine availability listed at covidwaco.com. When the next shipment of vaccines comes, the hotline will direct callers to another phone line where they can register.
Waco City Council Member Andrea Barefield was among the vaccine recipients Tuesday, posting a live video to Facebook. Barefield said she falls under phase 1B of the state’s vaccination plan because of an underlying medical condition, and signed up when she saw a notification from the health district.
“We did only have 1,500, but there are more coming and they (the public health district) are working on setting up sites in the coming weeks,” Barefield said. “There’s 250,000 folks in the county, and we’re going to do our best to get 250,000 folks vaccinated. We want to make it so everybody who wants one can get theirs.”
Multiple people receiving the vaccine at the clinic requested to remain anonymous, including one from Kyle, who said he found out about the Waco clinic from a family member who lives in the city.
One recipient, a home health worker who has lived in Waco for 14 years, said she signed up when the public health district contacted her agency.
“This was sooner than I thought,” she said. “Originally we thought only people who work in a hospital or doctor’s clinic would be able to get it.”
Cameron Khouri, a 21-year-old Texas State Technical College student, was among the youngest to receive the vaccine Tuesday. He suffers from a coarctation of the aorta, a rare congenital condition that put him squarely in Phase 1B.
“I didn’t think I would be getting it this soon, less than a year after everything happened in March,” Khouri said. “But as soon as I found out they were giving vaccines I found out what category I was in.”
He said his mother saw the public health district’s post online and snagged him a spot.
“I definitely feel more relieved, and I’m excited to get the second round done,” Khouri said. “Of course, there are different strains and you never know. But I’m excited, and I wish more people would come out if they’re eligible to get it.”
Longtime Waco resident Sherry Heatherston said she and her husband signed up after he received a text notification. They are both over the age of 65, and have been social distancing for months now.
“Spots were filling up so fast,” Heatherston said. “He was at 12:45 p.m. and I was at 3:30 p.m., and we were (registering) at the same time.”
Heatherston said she only hopes getting the second dose will be as easy.
“I thought we would automatically get an appointment, but they don’t know really know when they’ll be available,” she said.
As of Tuesday, the state had recorded 4,969 people in McLennan County receiving the vaccine, including 567 who had received both doses. That data would not yet include shots given Tuesday.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. House rushed ahead Tuesday toward impeaching President Donald Trump for the deadly Capitol attack, taking time only to try to persuade his vice president to push him out first. Trump showed no remorse, blaming impeachment itself for the “tremendous anger” in America.
Already scheduled to leave office next week, Trump is on the verge of becoming the only president in history to be twice impeached. His incendiary rhetoric at a rally ahead of the Capitol uprising is now in the impeachment charge against him, even as the falsehoods he spread about election fraud are still being championed by some Republicans.
The House convened Tuesday night to vote on urging Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to remove Trump with a Cabinet vote. But shortly before that, Pence said he would not do so in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
He said that it would not be in the best interest of the nation or consistent with the Constitution and that it was “time to unite our country as we prepare to inaugurate President-elect Joe Biden.”
Meanwhile, three three Republican lawmakers, including third-ranking House GOP leader Liz Cheney of Wyoming, announced they would vote to impeach Trump on Wednesday, cleaving the Republican leadership, and the party itself.
“The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” said Cheney in a statement. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
As lawmakers reconvened at the Capitol for the first time since the bloody siege, they were bracing for more violence ahead of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Jan. 20.
“All of us have to do some soul searching,” said Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, imploring other Republicans to join.
Trump, meanwhile, warned the lawmakers off impeachment and suggested it was the drive to oust him that was dividing the country.
“To continue on this path, I think it’s causing tremendous danger to our country, and it’s causing tremendous anger,” Trump said.
In his first remarks to reporters since last week’s violence, the outgoing president offered no condolences for those dead or injured, only saying, “I want no violence.”
With Pence’s agreement to invoke the 25th Amendment ruled out, the House will move swiftly to impeachment on Wednesday.
Trump faces a single charge — “incitement of insurrection” — in the impeachment resolution after the most serious and deadly domestic incursion at the Capitol in the nation’s history.
During an emotional debate ahead of the House action, Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., urged her Republican colleagues to understand the stakes, recounting a phone call from her son as she fled during the siege.
“Sweetie, I’m OK,” she told him. “I’m running for my life.”
But Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a top Trump ally just honored this week at the White House, refused to concede that Biden won the election outright.
Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., tied such talk to the Capitol attack, interjecting, “People came here because they believed the lie.”
Two Republicans, Reps. John Katko of New York, a former federal prosecutor, and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, an Air Force veteran, announced they, too, would vote to impeach.
A handful of other House Republicans could join in the impeachment vote, but it’s not clear there would be a the two-thirds vote needed to convict from the narrowly divided Senate, though some Republicans say it’s time for Trump to resign.
The unprecedented events, with just over a week remaining in Trump’s term, are unfolding in a nation bracing for more unrest. The FBI has warned ominously of potential armed protests in Washington and many states by Trump loyalists ahead of Biden’s inauguration and Capitol Police warned lawmakers to be on alert. The inauguration ceremony on the west steps of the Capitol will be off limits to the public.
Lawmakers were required to pass through metal detectors to enter the House chamber, not far from where Capitol police, guns drawn, had barricaded the door against the rioters. Some Republican lawmakers complained about it.
A Capitol police officer died from injuries suffered in the riot, and police shot a woman during the violence. Three other people died in what authorities said were medical emergencies.
In the Senate, Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania joined GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska over the weekend in calling for Trump to “go away as soon as possible.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, did not go that far, but on Tuesday called on Trump to address the nation and explicitly urge his supporters to refrain from further violence. If not, he said, Trump “will bear responsibility.”
No member of the Cabinet has publicly called for Trump to be removed from office through the 25th Amendment.
Biden has said it’s important to ensure that the “folks who engaged in sedition and threatening the lives, defacing public property, caused great damage — that they be held accountable.”
Fending off concerns that an impeachment trial would bog down Biden’s first days in office, the president-elect is encouraging senators to divide their time between taking taking up his priorities of confirming his nominees and approving COVID relief while also conducting the trial.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer suggested in a letter to colleagues Tuesday the chamber would do both.
As Congress resumed, an uneasiness swept the halls. More lawmakers tested positive for COVID-19 after sheltering during the siege. Many lawmakers were voting by proxy rather than come to Washington, a process that was put in place last year to limit the health risks of travel.
One of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was among those echoing the president, saying “impeachment at this time would have the opposite effect of bringing our country together.”
House Democrats say they have the votes for impeachment. The impeachment bill drafted by Reps. David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Ted Lieu of California, during the riot lockdown, and joined by Raskin of Maryland and Jerrold Nadler of New York draws from Trump’s own false statements about his election defeat to Biden.
Judges across the country, including some nominated by Trump, have repeatedly dismissed cases challenging the election results, and former Attorney General William Barr, a Trump ally, has said there was no sign of widespread fraud.
The impeachment legislation also details Trump’s pressure on state officials in Georgia to “find” him more votes, as well as his White House rally ahead of the Capitol siege, in which he encouraged thousands of supporters last Wednesday to “fight like hell” and march to the building.
The mob overpowered police, broke through security lines and windows and rampaged through the Capitol, forcing lawmakers to scatter as they were finalizing Biden’s victory over Trump in the Electoral College.
While some have questioned impeaching the president so close to the end of his term, there is precedent. In 1876, during the Ulysses Grant administration, War Secretary William Belknap was impeached by the House the day he resigned, and the Senate convened a trial months later. He was acquitted.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Jill Colvin, Ellen Knickmeyer and Bill Barrow contributed to this report.
The Texas Legislature gaveled in Tuesday for its biennial session with a heavy security presence after the U.S. Capitol insurrection last week and rampant reminders of the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.
The state House and Senate met in the early afternoon without incident, and there was only a small protest outside the Capitol beforehand. Still, the sight of state troopers clustered around the building’s entrances and lining the halls inside was striking, especially after the unrest in the nation’s capital on Wednesday that left five people dead and has led to dozens of arrests.
“This is my 19th session, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the way I felt today when I recognized that we had to have all this security,” Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said in the minutes before the session began. “And my first question to myself was, How far have we come? I mean, have we come forward or have we gone backward?”
“I told the DPS officers and the military I felt safe,” Dutton added, “but I didn’t know I needed them to feel safe.”
The opening day of the 140-day session was otherwise highlighted by adjustments made due to the pandemic and the election of Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, as House speaker, which was expected. In addition to each chamber’s opening-day protocols, there was mandatory COVID-19 testing for everyone entering the building, a move that the Department of Public Safety announced Monday evening.
“Everyone has been tested that’s on the floor today and in the gallery,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said during the Senate’s meeting. “We want our Capitol open this session unlike many states. ... We’re going to be open to the best of our ability throughout session.”
The pandemic was a central topic of state leaders’ speeches. More Texans were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday than at any time since the pandemic started, and the death toll in the state was approaching 30,000. But the state is in the early stages of distributing vaccines.
After he was elected speaker, Phelan told House members they were beginning the session “at a crossroads.”
“Today, we are on the brink of defeating COVID-19,” Phelan said. “Now the difficult work of recovery begins, and we have a very short runway in which to do it.”
In similar speeches to both chambers, Gov. Greg Abbott promised to focus on “tackling COVID challenges” and “getting Texans back to work.” He also spoke of ensuring better access to health care for Texans and helping law enforcement, an allusion to his previously announced push to punish local governments that “defund the police” in his view.
Phelan also used his speech to address the storming of the U.S. Capitol, saying Americans “witnessed the dark side of political and social division as senseless and unacceptable violence swept through our streets” both last week and over the summer, when anti-police-brutality protesters clashed with some police.
Nothing remotely close to what happened in Washington, D.C., unfolded Tuesday in Austin. There was a small protest — appearing to number less than a dozen people — outside the Capitol’s north entrance, at least partly related to vaccines, about an hour before the session began, and a wall of DPS officers were lined up on the perimeter of it.
Several supporters demonstrating in support of President Donald Trump used a bullhorn pressed up against a phone to amplify Trump’s speech from the Mexico border, the Associated Press reported.
Others outside included several armed men in combat gear wearing “Texas Militia” labels on their clothes, according to the AP. The chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, former Florida U.S. Rep. Allen West, took a picture with them and posted it on the Texas GOP’s official Twitter account.
After the chambers let out around 1:30 p.m., DPS troopers were still in place on the outdoor perimeter of the Capitol, but there were no protests in sight.
There was little drama inside the building as well. After unofficially locking up the speakership weeks ago, Phelan won it by a vote of 143-2.
In the Senate, lawmakers unanimously elected state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, president pro tempore, a ceremonial post which typically goes to the longest-serving senator who has not yet served as pro tem. He represented District 22, which includes Waco. Birdwell replaces state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.
Both chambers are set to take up their rules later this week, and then, if they finish their work, adjourn until Jan. 26.
The scene on each chamber’s floor was less active and crowded than it has been on opening day in past sessions, with lawmakers allowed to bring fewer guests than usual. House members were required to wear masks; senators were not.
Milling about the Capitol before noon, lawmakers said they felt safe, both with the enhanced security presence and the pandemic measures.
“I feel way over safe,” Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, said, adding that he did not see any security concerns and disagreed with the need for mandatory coronavirus testing to enter the building.
While the House and Senate instituted opening-day protocols inside their respective chambers, members have been allowed to run their offices how they see fit, at least in the House. Phelan said in a statement Monday night that “each member will decide how they run their office and the protocols governing their office for the remainder of the session.”
Biedermann said there are “no rules” inside his office and he is relying on people to be personally responsible, “just like they do in real life.”
Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said his office is not accepting visitors and requiring masks.
“Members can do what they want through their own offices,” Turner said, “but in common areas, on the House floor, I hope everyone is respectful of each other.”
Soaring COVID-19 caseloads kept at least two lawmakers away, including Rep. Michelle Beckley, who called the gathering a potential “superspreader” event, according to the Associated Press. Shortly after the opening ceremony ended, state health officials reported that Texas had surpassed 14,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients for the first time, as well as 22,000 more newly confirmed cases.
The first day of session for the Texas Legislature — which meets for 140 days every two years — is typically among the most crowded, making the calm and sparsely populated Capitol grounds Tuesday all the more noticeable.