Local officials clash with governors over reopening

Local officials clash with governors over reopening
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Local officials in Arizona and Texas who want to impose tighter restrictions as coronavirus cases spike in their communities are clashing with GOP governors who won’t allow them to do so.

Both are among the hardest-hit states by the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, and the governors’ orders to allow businesses to reopen supersede local orders, leaving county and city officials warning that their hands are tied if they need to reimpose lockdowns.

Local officials, most of them Democrats, are also seeking authority to impose mandatory orders to require people to wear masks in public, but Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in Texas and Gov. Doug Ducey (R) in Arizona have refused. 

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The tensions come as some states, many with Republican governors, have moved faster than others in reopening amid concerns about the devastating economic impact caused by lockdowns.

“The first thing that I would do if I didn’t have my hands tied by Gov. Ducey, would be to make face masks mandatory, especially when people are in public,” said Tucson, Ariz., Mayor Regina Romero (D).

In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, County Executive Lina Hidalgo (D) has warned that new lockdown-type orders might need to be imposed if the alarming rise in cases and hospitalizations continues. But she does not have the power to impose such orders herself, leading her to seek authority from the governor.

“I am in conversation with the governor about if we ended up in a place where we’re just a couple weeks from filling up [hospital beds],” she said in an interview. “Then the only thing we’re going to be able to do is to shut down.”

Asked if Abbott seems open to that idea, Hidalgo said only that there are “ongoing discussions.”

In Arizona, even nightclubs are now open, allowing the virus to spread in tightly packed areas, which Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (D) said should not be allowed. 

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“I would like to have the tools to slow the spread in my city,” she said in an interview.

“What we’re doing right now is not working,” she added. “If we do not change course in Arizona by the time we hit the July 4 holiday, we will be in trouble.” 

The situation in both states is worsening. Coronavirus hospitalizations hit new records in both states on Monday, with 1,506 people in the hospital in Arizona with the virus and 2,326 in Texas, according to state data.

Both Ducey and Abbott have been fairly aggressive in allowing businesses to reopen, with bars, restaurants, hair salons and other establishments now operating, though with some capacity limits.

In many other states, governors have allowed local officials to go slower and choose their own timelines for reopening, especially in dense urban areas. For example, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) allowed local officials in Baltimore and the Washington, D.C., suburbs to reopen at a slower pace than the rest of the state.

But that is not the case in Arizona and Texas. Both governors are also declining to issue mandatory orders to wear masks in public, though they are encouraging mask-wearing on a voluntary basis.

As cases continue to spike, some local officials have taken to writing formal letters to their governors requesting authority to impose mandatory mask orders.

“We applaud your efforts to encourage people to follow the CDC guidelines but we see that in our community, the message is simply not getting through,” Nogales, Ariz., Mayor Arturo Garino wrote to Ducey in a letter on Monday. “The rates of confirmed COVID-19 cases in our community are growing and we don’t see any signs of the curve flattening anytime soon.”

“I am asking that you provide the necessary authorization for me to mandate the wearing of face coverings whenever our residents are in public or in situations when social distancing is not possible,” he added.

Asked about the letter, Patrick Ptak, a Ducey spokesman, did not directly address the request, but said: “Our border counties are getting hit hard, and we’re going to be working with them to contain the spread of COVID-19, including ensuring they have adequate testing, PPE [personal protective equipment] and other supplies.”

Judge Nelson Wolff (D), the county executive for Bexar County in Texas, which includes San Antonio, wrote a similar letter to Abbott last week.

Bexar County had a mandatory mask order, which allowed a fine of up to $1,000 for failure to comply, in April, but it was later overruled by the governor.

“He’s going to have to make some changes, because we just can’t continue this way,” Wolff said in an interview.

Asked about the letter in an interview with Fox San Antonio on Friday, Abbott said he personally encourages people to wear masks but added: “Judge Wolff and I have a philosophical difference. He believes in government mandates; I believe in individual responsibility.”

“It’s wrong to deprive somebody of their liberty just because they’re not wearing a mask during the course of dealing with this challenge,” Abbott added.

Abbott and Ducey have both pointed to figures showing that there is still excess hospital capacity in their states and that they have the ability to surge capacity further if needed.

Some local officials, though, say slowing the spread of the virus should be the metric, not just making sure there is still room in hospitals.

Asked at a news conference last week about his past comments that government is better closer to the people, and why he would not allow localities greater control, Ducey said, “We want to have clarity and consistency for our citizens.”

“I will continue to believe that the government closest to the people is best,” he noted, “except in a global pandemic.”