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.”