High school coaches’ convention will draw thousands to San Antonio as pandemic rages across Texas

The NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, planned for March at the Albuquerque Convention Center in New Mexico, were canceled because of the new coronavirus. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports via REUTERS

Later this month, thousands of people from across Texas are expected to gather in San Antonio for the state’s premier annual high school coaching convention.

Over the course of three days, coaches and athletics professionals in the Texas High School Coaches Association will participate in educational sessions, learn about student health and safety, network, mingle and attend an awards banquet. Masks won’t be required, according to the association’s rules.

“While risk remains low at this time, we cannot ensure a virus-free environment. THSCA will be a handshake free meeting. We recommend the THSCA elbow tap,” the association posted June 10 in its health guidelines for the convention.

Next week, about 500 people are expected to gather for a different coaches’ convention in Arlington. Meanwhile, the Texas Republican Party is mulling this week whether it will move forward with its 6,000-person convention in Houston.

As Texas weathers rapidly increasing coronavirus cases and a worrisome level of hospitalizations, conventions are largely allowed to go on as planned. Gov. Greg Abbott has shut down bars and banned nonessential hospital procedures in some counties. He’s allowed local governments to limit outdoor gatherings to no more than 100 people. But there is no statewide prohibition stopping thousands of people from attending indoor gatherings in Texas’ COVID-19 hot spots.

San Antonio is in Bexar County, which has the fourth-highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the state. The THSCA’s 2019 convention drew more than 13,000 attendees from across the state, according to the group’s website.

This year, the THSCA projects that the conference — scheduled for July 19 to 21 at the Henry B. González Convention Center — will draw 5,000 attendees, said Wanda Williams, the center’s operations manager.

“After these past few difficult months, it’s exciting to open our doors again to welcome the association to a safe, comfortable destination,” Casandra Matej, the president and CEO of Visit San Antonio — which partners with the THSCA — wrote in a June 8 press release. “San Antonio is open for business again, and together we’ll play a winning role in Texas’ economic recovery.”

On Wednesday, Matej acknowledged the gravity of the situation and said officials were taking health precautions seriously.

“The pandemic situation continues to evolve and so does San Antonio and its businesses,” she said in an email. “San Antonio is known to Texans as a safe and comfortable destination and we are all doing everything possible to keep it so. ... This meeting, similar to other meetings and events across the state, are under a watchful eye of the industry and public to ensure we all can deliver on a safe path forward for in-person events. It’s a great responsibility and one no one is taking lightly.”

This week, the city of San Antonio announced it is prohibiting indoor gatherings of more than 100 people, effective at noon Thursday for an indefinite period of time. But the order does not apply to trade associations leasing convention center space, said Jeff Coyle, the city’s director of government and public affairs.

“Regardless, the City owns the convention center, and we will be requiring daily temperature checks and symptom screening upon entry to the facility, and we will require the wearing of facial coverings where social distancing is not feasible,” Coyle wrote in an email Wednesday.

Masks are not mandated throughout the convention, but they are encouraged, according to the association’s rules. But Williams said employees and guests will be required to wear them in situations where “social distancing cannot be maintained.”

“The Convention Center will implement physical distancing protocols and requires the use of masks where six feet of distance between people cannot be maintained,” Williams said in an email. “In addition, the facility is equipped with hand sanitizer stations and signage to remind patrons of keeping a safe distance from others.”

Guests will be screened upon entrance and have their temperatures taken, and paramedics will be standing by to assist.

The Texas High School Coaches Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Both of the coaches’ conventions planned for this month will offer a virtual program for participants who cannot make it to the in-person meetings.

The Texas Girls Coaches Association’s in-person convention — scheduled for July 6 to 9 — is expected to draw 500 attendees, where activities will be split between the Arlington Convention Center and the neighboring Sheraton Arlington Hotel, according to Susan Schrock, a spokesperson for the city of Arlington, which is in Tarrant County.

Tarrant County has the third-highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the state. Last week, county officials issued an order mandating face masks at all businesses and outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people. Schrock said the convention center will require masks regardless.

“The convention center is operating under county and state guidelines, which currently means that conventions are limited to 50% of the occupancy for each space that they use,” Schrock said. “We’ve got sanitizing stations, and those who enter the convention center will wear a mask.”

Tarrant County officials declined to comment on the convention and deferred to city of Arlington officials on the matter.

Schrock added that visitors will be required to wear masks in the Arlington Convention Center “except for in instances where they can safely socially distance.”

Sam Tipton, TGCA’s executive director, wrote in an email that the in-person clinic will abide by all Tarrant County and city of Arlington regulations.

“It has now been mandated you wear a face covering in all buildings and businesses in Tarrant County,” the TGCA’s website read as of Monday morning, an update from the previous week when the website said face coverings were “not a requirement, at this time.”

The TGCA’s website also informs attendees that they will be required to sign a form acknowledging the risks of exposure to the coronavirus.

“We will not skirt any of the rules,” Tipton said.

Medical experts have discouraged large indoor gatherings as the pandemic worsens in the Lone Star State.

Dr. Luis Ostrosky, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Texas McGovern Medical School, did not comment on the coaches’ conventions, but he said he generally thinks large indoor gatherings are not advisable at this time.

“I've always thought we could do indoor gatherings, if we follow the rules and community incidence is low,” Ostrosky said. “Obviously, at this time, we're not meeting those conditions. There's very high community incidence.”

The Texas Republican Party this week said its board will decide Thursday whether there will be changes to plans for its in-person convention, which is scheduled for July 16-18 in Houston and does not have a mask mandate. The Texas Tribune reported earlier this week that the Texas Medical Association is one of the convention’s sponsors, prompting the organization to criticize the in-person convention and call for its cancellation.

Disclosure: The Texas Medical Association has been financial a supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.