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Young Republicans Stage Secret Gala, Ignoring Virus Concerns


On Thursday evening, the New York Young Republican Club held its 108th annual gala, in person.

It did not feature Sarah Palin, who had been booked for the event but canceled because of concerns about flying to the New York area from Alaska in the middle of a pandemic, according to someone familiar with her thinking.

It was not held at the Caldwell Factory, the site listed on the club’s Facebook page. A spokesman for the venue, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, said that management had “no knowledge of this event,” adding that no events had been booked there for months.

The only certitude about the gala was that it had morphed into one of the more controversial party-planning decisions in New York City history — and, in the end, the event was not even held in the state.

With a second coronavirus wave bearing down on New York, the Young Republican Club — by insisting on staging an in-person party — has thrust itself into a politically charged culture war over masks, social distancing and the virus.

When New York City officials questioned the event, the 26-year-old president of the group, Gavin M. Wax, hurled a Yiddish vulgarity at Brad Hoylman, a Democratic state senator. His club referred to a former city councilman and other Jewish critics as “court Jews.” (Mr. Wax is also Jewish.)

And when Ms. Palin canceled, Mr. Wax quickly found a replacement: Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, a close ally of President Trump who, in the early days of the pandemic, wore a gas mask on the floor of Congress as he prepared to vote on coronavirus relief legislation.

“I’m honored to be invited, and I’m looking forward to the event,” Mr. Gaetz said in a prepared statement.

New York’s regulations surrounding the virus allow the club to hold an event in a restaurant or similar facility in many areas of the city, provided the gathering does not exceed 25 percent of the venue’s capacity or 50 people, whichever is fewer. In-home gatherings are limited to 10 people.

Mr. Wax declined to disclose the location of Thursday evening’s event, citing concerns “about the safety of our guests from violent left-wing attacks.”

Mr. Wax also refused to say how many would actually attend, but at least 65 people had indicated on the group’s Facebook page that they were planning to be at the event, as The Daily Beast reported. That would exceed New York’s 50-person maximum.

Mr. Wax declined to be interviewed by phone. But in a series of text messages, Twitter direct messages, tweets and emails, he insisted that the club was following virus protocols and that Democrats were hypocritically trying to shut down the party, even as they themselves took part in seemingly ill-advised indoor events.

“As it stands now we are legally within our right to hold this gala, following all the necessary precautions,” Mr. Wax said. “Other events have gone on indoors, ours is only receiving attention because we are a Young Republican club.”

Mr. Wax said Mr. Gaetz would appear in person, but it was not clear how he could do so in New York or New Jersey while also abiding by the state’s quarantine rules. Were Mr. Gaetz to fly in from Florida, New York state rules would require him to go into quarantine for at least three days and, without testing, for as many as 14. New Jersey asks visitors from out of state to go into quarantine for 14 days, too.

The event’s other headline speaker was James O’Keefe, the conservative activist who runs the New York-based Project Veritas. He also declined to confirm his attendance.

At first, Project Veritas’s communications director, Neil McCabe, said that Mr. O’Keefe was unavailable for comment and that “his schedule is private.”

Afterward, Mr. O’Keefe called and offered a New York Times reporter the opportunity to spy on The Times for Project Veritas.

“We’d love to give you one of our hidden cameras, and maybe you could speak with Mr. Baquet,” he said, referring to Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor. (The reporter declined.)

Elected New York City officials like Mr. Hoylman, whose district includes Caldwell Factory, the event space listed on Facebook, and whose aunt died of the coronavirus, reacted with disbelief when they caught wind of the planned shindig.

“I found it jaw-dropping that any group would organize an in-person gathering that could be a superspreader event, particularly a political organization that should be sensitive to these types of public concerns,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Wax said that the club had begun planning the event last December and had “gone through a few venues over the last 12 months.”

The person familiar with Ms. Palin’s decision to cancel said that it was her impression that the event had been moved to New Jersey.

By Thursday night, that much became clear. A New York City Patch reporter tweeted an image of an invitation for the gala, featuring the venue’s name and the guests of honor, Mr. Gaetz and Mr. O’Keefe, who both appeared at the event.

Images posted on Twitter showed attendees gathered inside Maritime Parc in Liberty State Park in Jersey City, seated and standing close together and wearing no masks.

New Jersey limits indoor gatherings during the pandemic to 10 people. An exception for “religious and political activities protected under the First Amendment” allows for indoor gatherings to 25 percent of a room’s capacity or 150 people, whichever is lower.

Indoor, maskless gatherings of more than 10 people without social distancing are forbidden.

One guest, Joel Fischer, posed for a selfie with Mr. Gaetz and used the image to send a message to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat.

“Hey @NYGovCuomo,” he wrote. “Come and get me.”

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