Southwest Michigan Republicans test positive for COVID-19 after district meeting

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

At least four, and potentially more than eight, Michigan Republicans who attended a district meeting at a Portage restaurant on March 25 tested positive for COVID-19 afterward, according to GOP officials.

Jason Watts, an Allegan County Republican and the treasurer for the 6th District Republican Committee, has been in the hospital for five days. He tested positive for COVID-19 on April 1 and is certain he was exposed to the virus at the regular meeting of the district organization, he said in a Tuesday phone interview from a hospital room in Grand Rapids.

"This meeting is what's happening in a lot of districts," Watts said. "They're not following the guidelines. I would say, at most, that room should have had 40 people there.

"The people in charge did not care."

An email to southwest Michigan Republicans informs them of a meeting on March 25. Multiple COVID-19 cases, including one hospitalization, have been linked to the event.

Each of Michigan's 14 congressional districts has a GOP committee. The 6th District features Republicans from U.S. Rep. Fred Upton's six-county, Southwest Michigan district.

Watts said about 69 people attended the March 25 meeting, which also featured Republican supporters of former President Donald Trump who unsuccessfully attempted to remove him as treasurer over comments he made in The New York Times in February. Watts told the newspaper he didn't vote for Trump. In 2020, he said he cast his ballot for the Libertarian nominee.

Watts estimated that about three of the 69 people in attendance for the March 25 gathering were wearing masks. From what he's heard, he said he believes at least 10 people who were there later tested positive for COVID-19.

Scott McGraw, chairman of the 6th District Republican Committee, provided slightly different tallies. McGraw said about 50 people attended the meeting and four to eight people later tested positive for the virus. McGraw said he knows of four people who tested positive and has heard about four others.

"Most of them in that room are not believers in the vaccine," McGraw said. "That’s something we’ve got to contend with.”

McGraw, who said he lost his father to COVID-19 in December, had been vaccinated before the event.

"I am kinda pushing people to get the vaccine," McGraw said. "That’s probably not the most popular conservative Republican stance. But I can testify that it helped me out.”

Michigan leads the nation in the number of new COVID-19 infections per population over the last seven days. The number of adults hospitalized in Michigan with COVID-19 reached 3,918 on Monday, surpassing the reported peak during the fall surge.

After suspending indoor dining at restaurants on Nov. 18, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration allowed restaurants to begin operating at 25% capacity on Feb. 1. On March 5, the administration increased the limit to 50%.

On Friday, amid the surging case numbers, the Democratic governor asked residents to voluntarily take a two-week break from indoor dining. Three days later, on Monday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Michigan needed to impose more restrictions to combat the rising numbers.

The 6th District GOP committee holds a regular meeting every other month, McGraw said. The March 25 gathering took place at Traveler's Cafe in Portage, the chairman said.

McGraw described the infections tied to the meeting as not a major outbreak. He said the restaurant's employees were tested and none of them had the virus.

As for Watts, he is hoping to be released from the hospital later Tuesday.

Watts said he had received his first COVID-19 vaccine dose the day of the March 25 district meeting.