In front of the fire was a sign with a long note. The very first sentence read: “Throwing one’s mask into the bonfire, is symbolic of releasing oneself from the constraints of government imposed lockdowns, mandates and overreach.”
A woman in an elaborate dress holding a tiny chihuahua danced up to the fire and threw in a blue surgical mask — the one we have all owned at some point during the pandemic. Young children followed suit, throwing in their tiny cloth masks. Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” played in the background.
But on the same note just a little further down were two sentences that read: “The act of throwing one’s mask into the bonfire, is in no way meant to belittle, undermine or demean the tragic number of individuals who have fallen ill, or tragically died due to Covid-19. In addition, this act is in no way intended to scorn or pass judgment upon those who make a personal decision to wear a mask.”
After reading that, I couldn’t help but think about my grand-aunt. She had the most vibrant and bubbly personality of anyone I had ever met. She was one of those people who, every time you saw them, made you smile just because of their positive energy. We were always amazed that, even during her last few years, she managed to make sure her curly, dark hair looked perfect every time we saw her.
My grand-aunt passed away on Sept. 24, 2020, at 97 years old from COVID-19. She had a long, beautiful life, but it tragically ended with her passing away in a hospital room alone and unable to breathe.
I’m not sure what I expected at the “Texas is Now Open Party.” But it definitely wasn’t a night of self-reflection.
The event, held by the Dallas Jewish Conservatives, was Wednesday night from 6:30-9:30 p.m. in Parker at Bettina Viviano-Langlais and Jim Langlais’ private estate. It celebrated Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to reopen Texas businesses 100% and end the statewide mask mandate. Abbott announced the decision on March 2, and the executive order went into effect Wednesday.
The Dallas Jewish Conservatives are a politically conservative Jewish group — not part of the centrist Conservative Judaism movement, which does not lean toward a specific political partisanship, The Dallas Morning News reported.
The event featured conservative speakers, such as Evan Sayet, a conservative comedian and Trump speechwriter; Keenan Williams, former Trump strategic initiatives director; and Shelley Luther, a Dallas salon owner who went viral for not following COVID-19 restrictions to close her business.
And, of course, it featured the widely discussed bonfire for party-goers to burn their masks in.
I’ll be blunt — covering this event did not go as expected. I showed up and met up with another reporter and photographer. We stood outside the Langlais’ beautiful home, waiting for the event to start at 6:30 p.m. We were the only three wearing masks — something that immediately caught the attention of an event organizer. Somehow, between the masks and the photographer’s giant camera, we stood out. Go figure.
“I assume you guys are with the media?” he asked. We told him we were.
To be clear — I and the other two media members I was with had signed up for the event’s free, general admission tickets. I emailed the Dallas Jewish Conservatives earlier Wednesday, letting them know that I would be there and asking if I could set up an interview with one of the organizers. I never heard back.
However, the organizer told us the press needed special permission ahead of the event to go in. He told us to wait, and someone would come out and talk to us.
Eventually, Benji Gershon, president of the Dallas Jewish Conservatives, came out. He said we needed to wait until 8 p.m. when the party starts and the speakers finish to come back. He also said we could take photos but couldn’t record video.
Then it was off to Waffle House where we waited.
Luther was still speaking when we came back at 8 p.m., so we were told to wait — again. About 18 minutes later, we came back, and Williams was still speaking. But thankfully, we were allowed in since he was close to finishing.
Eyes were on the three of us the minute we walked in, wearing our masks. It felt weird to be the odd one out for wearing a mask during a global pandemic. I now think back to that one sentence in the note by the bonfire — “In addition, this act is in no way intended to scorn or pass judgment upon those who make a personal decision to wear a mask.”
But maybe they weren’t trying to scorn us or pass judgment — they could have been just confused as to why people would show up to an event celebrating the end of the mask mandate wearing masks. I don’t blame them. We live in confusing times. But I haven’t had COVID-19, as far as I know, and I live with other people — none of whom are vaccinated yet. I just didn’t think it was worth taking off my mask to fit in with the party-goers.
Plus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said only fully vaccinated people should gather indoors without masks and social distancing. And while the event was outside, it was pretty crowded.
Everyone was gathered in the backyard listening to Williams tell his story. He explained how he was sentenced to six years in prison in 1993 for “everything your parents told you not to do.” And while in prison, he found God.
Upon leaving prison, he said he hustled to find work and eventually made his way to the top. He also realized he was a Republican a little later.
“So I spent every day educating people about who we are as Republicans because they are ignorant to who we are,” Williams said. “But if we really love people the way God tells us to love people, why is it so hard to love them in the midst of their ignorance? We can not win who we offend. And when criticism begins, your influence will end.”
Sadly, he was running out of time to speak, so I never heard the answer to why it is so hard to love non-Republicans. Maybe it was supposed to be a rhetorical question.
After Williams spoke, Gershon announced raffle winners and his fiancée’s birthday. A cake with lighted candles came out. After someone said she should blow out the candles, a person in the crowd said, “you aren’t supposed to blow [out the candles] because of Covid.” Everyone laughed.
A man holding a beer approached myself and the other two reporters. He said he assumed we were with the media because of our “stupid” masks.
“Are you guys recently woke out of college or something?” he asked. I kept my damn mouth shut and let the other reporter answer since I’m 23 and just graduated college in December. I didn’t have much of a leg to stand on in that argument.
While he was speaking to the other reporter, I happened to turn around and make eye contact with a woman standing right behind us. She asked me what publication we were with, and I told her. I thought that was the end of it.
Then I noticed that she started taking video of us standing in front of her. At first, I didn’t think much of it.
Gershon announced that people could go over to the bonfire and burn their masks if they wanted, so naturally, the three of us started making our way over there. I noticed the woman was following right behind us, but I assumed it was because she was going to the bonfire.
Once we got to the bonfire, she took a picture of me with the flash on. I stared at her wanting to ask why she took a picture of me, but it was so awkward that I didn’t even know what to say. I kept thinking that there was no way she was following us because all we were doing was taking notes and pictures. Maybe she took the picture of me by accident.
But then she followed us as we left the bonfire scene, and I knew I wasn’t misreading what was happening. I split up from the other two, and I never saw her again. No harm, no foul.
Yet, while she was following me around taking video, I realized that I was somehow on the other side of my job. At the same time, as a journalist, I have to identify myself and get consent to use content, which was not what happened here since the woman did not ask me if I was OK with being filmed.
But, regardless, it felt invasive being — somewhat — on the other side.
Let’s keep it real — there’s a lot of distrust of the media on both sides, especially among conservatives. I can’t say I blame them for being skeptical that we were there. We all have an innate need to protect ourselves.
That’s when something else the beer-holding man said to us popped into my head: “The media needs to be challenged.”
But I wasn't the only one challenged.
The Lone Mayor
Shortly after we left, McKinney Mayor George Fuller arrived. According to NewsRadio 1080 KRLD, he'd been invited to the party, and he thought he would be speaking to the crowd. He didn’t realize mask burning would be part of it. Fuller has been a strong proponent of masks since the pandemic began, especially since his daughter had a hard fight with COVID-19.
Apparently, Fuller was confronted by Collin County Conservatives leader Zach Barrett, and the two engaged in a loud argument recorded on video. Barrett told NewsRadio that he was addressing a past issue between the two. Fuller is currently seeking re-election and claimed he was set up.
“I realized at that moment that I was there as a set up,” Fuller said in a Facebook video. “I was asked to come under a pretense of speaking to a group of people in a Jewish Conservative candidate-type thing. And apparently it was a mask-burning party, as I’ve now learned.”
Regardless — someone filmed that confrontation. Maybe the woman who filmed the other two reporters and me thought she should film in case another confrontation happened. Sadly for her, I’m not confrontational. I’m sure her video is boring as hell.
The other two reporters left about 10 minutes after I split up from them. At the end of the night, I realized I was there by myself, wearing my mask, which, at that moment, felt like wearing a sign on my forehead that read, “I’m liberal.”
As I watched people slowly start leaving, I stood there debating if I should stay. And I’ll be honest — I felt uncomfortable. I wanted to leave so bad.
But I want to be clear — no one (except for the beer guy, I guess) was rude to me. Everyone I spoke to, including Gershon, was kind to me. Probably a little annoyed I was there, but still kind.
I slowly made my way through the maskless crowd, past the check-in table and back to my car. I sat in my car for a second and realized I smelled like a campfire because of the mask burning. It served as a reminder of the weird, reflective night I had endured until I washed my hair the next morning.
I may not know much at just 23 — and every person older than me has never had a problem telling me so. But I do know that we will never make it as a country without empathy.
It could’ve been easy and would’ve probably made for a much more entertaining story if I had taken what I experienced at that event negatively. Sure, it was uncomfortable. I didn’t like being looked at weirdly and videoed for wearing a mask while trying to do my job.
But the people who were at that party are just that — people. And whether I agree with them or not, and whether whoever reads this agrees with them or not, we will never see progress if we don’t see things from other points-of-views. Or at least try to.