“I wore two masks” at the event, said Watts, 44, who ended up spending five days in the hospital. “I found out later that four people at my table — not including me — came down with covid.”
The experience has left Watts, the Republican Party treasurer for the 6th Congressional District, blasting other party members for being careless about the pandemic and for not holding the meeting virtually.
“Masks and vaccines shouldn’t be political,” Watts said. “They don’t have a party.”
The party’s district leader, Scott McGraw, disputed some of Watts’s figures, saying that he estimated 55 to 65 people attended the meeting. But he confirmed to local media that few wore masks or were vaccinated and that about four to eight attendees later tested positive.
“Most of them in that room are not believers in the vaccine,” McGraw, the chairman of the 6th District Republican Committee, told the Detroit News. “That’s something we’ve got to contend with.”
The intraparty conflict comes as the spring wave of the coronavirus has hit Michigan especially hard. Michigan reported over 7,000 new covid cases on Thursday, according to The Washington Post’s covid tracker, and averaged 52 deaths over seven days — more than double that of a month earlier. On Monday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested the state “shut things down.”
Watts said the March 25 meeting at Traveler’s Cafe and Pub in Portage, Mich., was planned last minute. A resident of Allegan, Mich., which is about halfway between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Watts said he was reluctant to go.
But committee members insisted he attend, telling him the gathering was “regarding your removal,” Watts recalled being told. Watts has been under fire for a February interview with the New York Times where he suggested it was time for the party to move on from Trump and revealed he never voted for him.
Although he still distributed dozens of party signs and made sure there was a cardboard cutout of Trump at the county fair, he said he maintained a silent resistance. “I consider that my conscience in the voting booth, and I did not feel that Trump earned my vote,” he told The Post.
Watts arrived at the meeting venue at 5:30 p.m., when the committee discussed ousting him because of his comments to the Times. But it later became clear that he did not violate any bylaws, Watts said. Before the full meeting began, dozens of party members mingled, many with no mask or with a face covering tucked under their chin, Watts said.
Of the 70 people at the gathering in Watts’s estimation, only about 40 needed to attend as voting party members. During the three hours he was in the room, Watts said he did not move from his table in an effort minimize his possible exposure.
McGraw, who was vaccinated before the meeting, said he empathized with Watts’s grievances and noted that his father died of covid-19 in December.
“It’s unfortunate these people came down with covid," McGraw said in an email to The Post, adding that he is in favor of wearing masks. “Mr. Watts sat directly across from me and I did not get covid. He wore his mask the entire meeting. Sometimes you do everything right and you still can get it.”
But McGraw clarified that the dinner was “in full compliance with the governor’s orders" and that people wore masks and sat distanced from one another.
By March 31, Watts and his wife began to feel ill. The following day they got tested for the virus and received positive diagnoses on April 2. Watts went to the hospital on April 8 when he was having trouble taking breaths, he said. He went home on April 13.
Watts’s remarks about the covid-19 outbreak to the Michigan press have caused another stir among some members of the committee. In an email shared with The Post, one former committee member blamed Watts for the outbreak, claiming that he “clearly infected a group of people on purpose” and was “out of control.”
Watts called those claims “depraved” and said he doesn’t “understand how they could attest a statement like that.”
What upset him most about the whole situation was that the meeting was held in the first place. “There was no reason,” he said, and there was no option to attend over Zoom.
Watts also expressed frustration that party members are resistant to wearing masks and are not concerned with exposing colleagues to the virus.
“It shouldn’t be an indication of your manhood, or what have you, if you don’t wear a mask,” he said.