Travis County investigating complaint accusing GOP event of violating COVID-19 orders

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Travis County fire marshal is investigating a complaint claiming a Travis County Republican Party fundraising event, with multiple lawmakers in attendance, violated state and local coronavirus orders.

The Travis County GOP held its annual Ronald Reagan Gala last Friday night at the Star Hill Ranch in Bee Cave. Based on photos posted on Twitter by State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, she attended the outdoor event along with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, U.S. Rep. Chip Roy and State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. The photos show a group picture of people not wearing masks, and people sitting at tables who are not wearing masks.

Yoojin Cho, a spokeswoman for Travis County, said she can confirm the fire marshal’s office is investigating a complaint it received, and that it is working with the city of Bee Cave to determine who has jurisdiction. The address of the Star Hill Ranch on Hamilton Pool Road is listed two ways online as having either an Austin or a Bee Cave address.

Kevin McKay, who said he lives in North Austin, told KXAN he filed the complaint after seeing pictures of the event posted online.

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Photo from State Sen. Dawn Buckingham posted on Twitter taken at the Travis County GOP Reagan Gala

“Instead of staying home and being safe, the GOP is at the Star Hill Ranch,” McKay said. “It’s a slap in the face to people like myself and people who have been in quarantine since March and following orders.”

The current city of Austin and Travis County “Stay Home, Mask, and Otherwise Be Safe” orders are in placed through December 15, 2020. The orders direct Austin-Travis County residents to continue practicing social distancing, hygiene and face-covering behaviors and state that social gatherings of up to 10 people should be avoided or minimized, and socializing in groups of 10+ individuals outside of the same household are prohibited. 

The Travis County GOP told KXAN between 300 to 350 people attended the gala, and everyone was screened for COVID-19 at the entrance and had to sign a waiver. Specific details about the screening process and what was in the waiver were not shared.

The governor’s order, which is outlined on the city of Bee Cave website, states gatherings of 100 or more people must be approved by local governments. 

KXAN reached out to City Manager Clint Garza and asked if anyone tied to the event reached out beforehand.

“They didn’t check with us first for the plan to be reviewed,” said Garza. “That’s what’s concerning.”

Garza said he didn’t know about the gala until the complaint was filed. He has since been in contact with those who run Star Hill Ranch to let them know the mayor and county must sign off on the health and safety plan in advance. Garza added that the business has always been great to work with and based on what they’ve told him it sounds like they made every effort to follow local and state guidelines.

The event was originally scheduled for May but postponed due to the pandemic, according to the Travis County GOP, which also said it had to move venues several times to find one that could allow for social distancing in an outdoor setting.

Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak issued the following statement in response to the complaint being investigated:

“Social distancing was enforced. Hand sanitizer was readily available. The entire event was outdoors. Masks were worn by attendees, except while eating and drinking and in some cases when taking photos. If social justice protests are acceptable, safe events like this should be also.”

Event info posted online includes the following message:

At this time, we are requesting guests wear masks from their car until they reach their outdoor dinner seat or anytime walking around. Guests are welcome to remove masks when drinking and eating. For dinner, the tables will be spaced per guidelines and will be at 50% capacity for seating so guests can spread out. We are absolutely committed to protecting our guests and honored speakers for an incredibly memorable evening together.

We realize that we are in unchartered territory in regard to in-person gatherings. We will follow all local and state guidelines and laws concerning meeting together in person for our event which was moved from May to August 21, and then changed venues.

KXAN reached out to various lawmakers who were at the gala, and is waiting on responses.

Matt Woolley with Star Hill Ranch confirmed they have discussed the event with local officials, and will do everything they can to continue to be in compliance with orders.

“As lifelong Texans and Austinites, Star Hill Ranch takes great pride in meeting or exceeding all state guidelines regarding safety and health protocols, and doing our part to be great community citizens,” said Woolley.

McKay said Travis County told him he should hear back from them Friday on what they decide to do, if anything. Travis County also told KXAN there could be an update Friday.

The governor’s order allows local governments to issue violations in the form of a fine of up to $250. It also states the first violation should be a warning.

Travis County GOP gala 082720
Photo from State Sen. Dawn Buckingham posted on Twitter taken at the Travis County GOP Reagan Gala. Pictured from left to right: U.S. Senator John Cornyn, State Sen. Donna Campbell, U.S. Congressman Dan Crenshaw, State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, U.S. Congressman Chip Roy

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