State Watch

Texas cities say state is making pandemic worse

City officials in Texas say the state’s government has hindered their ability to fight the coronavirus outbreak that is rapidly rising to a crisis as hospitals fill. 

Local officials say executive orders from Gov. Greg Abbott (R) have limited their efforts to fight the growing number of cases; they are especially incensed by Abbott’s move to strip local police of the ability to issue tickets to anyone who refuses to wear a mask in public. 

“I had the authority and I did require [masks in public] months ago,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) told The Hill in an interview. “We had great compliance, because law enforcement would show up and educate and folks would get it.”

Five days after Hidalgo issued her order on April 22, Abbott used an executive order to prevent local governments like Harris County, home to Houston and more than 25,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, from issuing fines.

“I no longer have the authority to require functionally anything,” Hidalgo said. “All I’ve been able to do is issue recommendations. All along, I kept my messaging that people really needed to not be going to bars and restaurants and clubs.”

Abbott’s office declined to comment beyond the public statements he has made.

Abbott has set an aggressive pace to reopen the state’s economy. He allowed hospitals to begin performing elective procedures on April 24. Restaurants and some local businesses reopened, albeit in limited capacity, on May 1. Bars and nightclubs were allowed to reopen, and restaurants were allowed to double their capacity, on May 18. By June 3, bars were allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity, and restaurants and retail stores could operate at 75 percent capacity by June 12.

As more businesses have opened up, many Texans have returned to some semblance of normality. Gulf Coast beaches near Houston were thriving over Memorial Day weekend. Three Austin-area parks around Lake Travis have closed in recent weeks because of overcrowding.

“It’s just human nature. If it’s optional and you’re hearing from elsewhere that it’s okay to return to normal life, of course you’re going to,” Hidalgo said. “It makes a lot of sense, if you’re telling folks that they can go out and lead life as usual, inevitably there’s going to be an increase in transmission.”

In more recent days, Abbott has made more strident warnings about the threats of the virus, and on Friday, he announced bars in the state would be closed. 

He also has urged Texans to wear masks in public, but mayors say that’s not enough. 

“The governor has all along been saying that people should be wearing masks, most important thing people can be doing, but yet he took away our authority as cities to impose mandatory mask rules. That hurt,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D) told The Hill. “When the governor took away our ability to mandate it, more people stopped wearing masks.”

The spiraling health crisis underscores a longer battle between conservatives who dominate the Texas legislature and liberals who run the state’s largest cities. 

For a decade or more, the legislature and both Abbott and his predecessor Rick Perry (R) have passed a series of laws preempting city ordinances over a wide range of public policy debates.

Some of those laws cover hot-button issues, threatening cities with funding cuts if they enact sanctuary policies for undocumented immigrants or barring those cities from implementing stricter gun control laws. Others have covered more mundane topics, banning cities from implementing bans on cellphones while driving that are stricter than the statewide hands-free law or implementing bans on fracking.

One preemption law Abbott signed in 2017 even banned cities from implementing restrictions on cutting down trees on private property.

Yet when majors sought to force residents to war face coverings outside or risk a fine, Abbott reversed those orders.

As the daily case counts mounted in mid-June, Abbott did cede some limited authority to cities: He allowed cities to require businesses to require patrons to wear masks, putting the onus on business owners who would be on the hook for fines rather than their customers.

“That is a good move. And it is having more people in my city wear masks. It is not as good as we had before, and it’s not as good as if the governor were mandating mask use in the state,” Adler said. “My businesses now understand, probably more than anybody else, that if they’re going to keep the economy open, then they’re the ones who have to help keep these numbers from going up.”

Epidemiologists and public health experts spent months warning against rapid re-openings after the March and April lockdowns, fearful that the gains those lockdowns achieved could be swiftly undone if residents returned too quickly to their ordinary routines.

That is exactly what has happened in Texas. The phase one reopening in May led to a slight increase in the number of coronavirus cases. The phase two reopening led to a consistent increase across the state. Phase three has contributed to a dramatic rise.

“The public has heard many conflicting messages from the government at the federal, state, and local level. Because of this, the public is left to make decisions about protecting their health on their own,” said Marilyn Felkner, a public health expert in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Texas at Austin. “The population must take precautionary measures for a very long time.”

Adler said his models show Austin reaching an average of 70 new cases a day, the point at which the city would need to lock down again to avoid its health care system being overrun, within a week to ten days. Many of Houston’s hospitals have already reached their regular operating capacity and are now implementing surge strategies, Hidalgo said. 

“The concern is these trends we’re looking at to project out, they show we would run out of all beds, including surge beds within the next 10 to 40 days, and every day [that range] gets shorter,” Hidalgo said. “It’s no fancy math. In fact, the trends are growing in a quadratic fashion. The trends are not linear, so our projections are conservative.”

Political scientists say the preemption laws that are now hindering the battle against the coronavirus are part of a multi-decade effort, kicked off under Perry, the state’s longest-serving governor, to strengthen the authority of the governor’s office. A system that traditionally favored a weak executive, a powerful legislature and largely independent cities has now been reversed. 

Abbott has struggled to balance his authority with pressure from his conservative flank, and President Trump, to reopen the state. Some of that pressure comes from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), a strident conservative who wields his own extraordinary power as the leader of the state Senate.

“There are more important things than living. And that’s saving this country for my children and my grandchildren and saving this country for all of us,” Patrick said on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News in April. “I don’t want to die, nobody wants to die, but man we’ve got to take some risks and get back in the game and get this country back up and running.”

Patrick’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“The state is now paying a public health price for his sensitivity to pressure from a combination of right-wing elected officials and opinion leaders in his own party as well as a Republican base containing a significant faction who are somewhere between weary of containment measures and skeptical of the seriousness of the pandemic,” said James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin.

Amid the surging cases, Abbott on Friday became the first governor in America to reimpose restrictions on businesses that had been allowed to resume operation. He ordered bars, rafting and tubing companies to close, and he reduced restaurant capacity from 75 percent to 50 percent.

“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said Friday. “I know that our collective action can lead to a reduction in the spread of COVID-19 because we have done it before, and we will do it again.”

Hidalgo, Adler and other local officials have urged Abbott to allow them more authority to restrict movement, require masks and order some businesses to reduce their capacity. 

Abbott’s order Friday gave them some hope, though they are waiting to see if he takes further steps. They said they may have only days or a few weeks to substantially reduce the case curve.

“I’m going to do everything in my power for us to avoid a crisis here. That’s going to take community sacrifices, but I hope that other communities don’t make the same mistake,” Hidalgo said. “Everything we can do, we’re doing. But it’s just not enough.”

Tags Austin Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Greg Abbott Houston Rick Perry Tucker Carlson

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