14 in Texas family test positive for coronavirus after small gathering, 1 dies

Tony Green, who lives in Dallas and hosted the small gathering, has described himself as a former COVID-19 denier.
By Janelle Griffith

Fourteen members of the same family in Texas tested positive for the coronavirus following a small gathering in June hosted by a man who says he believed the coronavirus was a hoax. One of them has died and another is on life support.

Tony Green, who lives in Dallas and hosted the event, wrote a column titled, "A harsh lesson in the reality of COVID-19," in which he said he was a former COVID-19 denier. The column was published online July 24 in the "Dallas Voice," which describes itself as "a media source for LGBT Texas."

"I admit I voted for Donald Trump in 2016. I admit traveling deep into the conspiracy trap over COVID-19," Green wrote. "All the defiant behavior of Trump’s more radical and rowdy cult followers, I participated in it. I was a hard-a-- that stood up for my 'God-given rights.'"

Green added: "In great haste, I began prognosticating the alphabet soup about this 'scamdemic.' I believed the virus to be a hoax. I believed the mainstream media and the Democrats were using it to create panic, crash the economy and destroy Trump’s chances at re-election."

Green said that after months of social distancing, he and his partner hosted a party for their parents on June 13. Green and his partner are not married but have been together nearly 9 years and he said he considers his partner's family as his in-laws.

He and his partner did not wear masks at the gathering, nor did their parents.

"We just felt the worst was behind the country because everything was easy, things were reopening and none of us were experiencing any symptoms," Green said.

The next day, Green said, he woke up feeling sick. By June 15, his partner and parents, all of whose names he declined to provide, were all sick.

Rafael Ceja.via Tony Green

Green, 43, told NBC News in a phone interview Monday that he has chronicled the episode in a GoFundMe that he launched to cover the medical expenses for his partner's father, Rafael Ceja, who has pneumonia and is on life support after testing positive for COVID-19.

Green said his partner's parents traveled from their home in Dallas to Austin on June 15 for the birth of their first grandchild. Ceja's mother and one of his partner's sisters also joined them for the visit.

"That night in Austin, my father-in-law became ill," Green said.

Then his mother-in-law and sister-in-law began feeling ill. Although his wife's parents and his sister-in-law quickly left Austin, the parents of the newborn also got sick and tested positive for the coronavirus, Green said.

The newborn was spared, he said.

Between June 17 and 23, his father-in-law's mother became ill.

"The pain and trauma that was yet to come is more than anybody could have prepared for," Green wrote on GoFundMe.

Green said he and his father-in-law were both admitted to the hospital June 24.

The virus attacked his central nervous system, Green said, and he nearly had a stroke. He spent a few days in the hospital. Sometime in late June, his father-in-law's mother was admitted to the same hospital as her son.

She died of COVID-19 and pneumonia July 2 in a room next door to her son, Green said. Ceja was unaware his mother was in a room next to his.

Later that day, Ceja learned his mother had passed away without any family by her side. "Not only would Rafael miss her funeral, he didn't even get to say goodbye or see her one last time," Green wrote on GoFundMe.

Green said his mother-in-law, Marisa, called him "crying and screaming in terror" July 12 to inform him Ceja was on life support.

Two days later, a funeral was held for Ceja's mother. Only 10 family members could attend.

Narrowing the guest count was made possible with the continuing bad news: Two of Ceja's sisters, one of his nephews and a brother-in-law had all contracted the virus bringing the total number of infected family members to 14, Green said.

Twelve family members have either recovered or are in various stages of recovery, Green said Monday.

He said he has had a front-row seat to his mother-in-law and father-in-law's suffering.

"I cannot help but feel responsible for convincing our families it was safe to have a get-together," he said.

The guilt he feels is overwhelming.

"There's a lot of things that I would have done differently," he said.

Green said he decided to publicly document his family's diagnoses because he knows many people in the Dallas area who are unconvinced the virus can be deadly and of the importance of social distancing. The decision has divided his family, he said.

"I just don’t think that people are really paying enough attention to the safety protocols and to the things they can do to protect themselves a little better," he said Monday.

Green said that he is uncertain whether staying at least 6 feet from other people who are not from your household in both indoor and outdoor spaces is effective in reducing the spread of the virus, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.

"I just didn't see that six feet apart makes a difference because of the distance germs can travel," he said. "I’m still not 100 percent sure that it does."

Still, he said, he believes people need to be more vigilant about wearing masks. There is increasing evidence that face coverings help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others, according to the CDC.

On July 2, Gov. Greg Abbott changed course and made it mandatory to wear masks in public in any county with 20 or more cases of the coronavirus.

"Wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19," Abbott said in a statement announcing his executive order.

After cases related to bars began to spike, Abbott ordered them closed June 26.

Green said he has friends in Dallas who do not think that the virus is significant enough to alter their way of life.

"I don't think they're going to change their opinions unless it bites them in the butt like it did me," he said.