In Texas, local and state officials battle over stay-at-home order

Andy Uhler Jul 24, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
Traffic waits to cross from Mexico into Hidalgo, Texas. The coronavirus has hit the region hard. John Moore/Getty Images

In Texas, local and state officials battle over stay-at-home order

Andy Uhler Jul 24, 2020
Traffic waits to cross from Mexico into Hidalgo, Texas. The coronavirus has hit the region hard. John Moore/Getty Images

Judge Richard Cortez of Hidalgo County, Texas, has found himself at the center of controversy over his stay-at-home orders. He issued the first one back in March.

“I received a lot of criticism for it because some people lost their jobs. Some people couldn’t go to work, some businesses couldn’t open,” Cortez said.

But he said the first lockdown worked, limiting COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths to just a handful. Then in late April, Gov. Greg Abbott started reopening the Texas economy and overriding local orders. The virus surged, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, where Hidalgo County is located.

In some cities along the Texas-Mexico border, hospitals are full, funeral homes are running out of space to store bodies and the federal government has sent mobile morgues as well as doctors and nurses.

In Hidalgo County alone, more than 400 people have died. On Monday, Cortez re-upped the stay-at-home order.

“I had to take desperate measures. And even though I went against the governor’s position of not putting shelter-in-place,” Cortez said, “I thought the facts and circumstances found in Hidalgo County required me to take drastic action.”

The governor’s office said Cortez has no mechanism to enforce the stay-at-home order. No fines or jail time. That’s because there’s no statewide shelter-in-place mandate, which Abbott had called a last resort. 

In his order, Cortez strongly recommended but did not require nonessential businesses to close shop. Steve Ahlenius, CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, said that’s a tough ask.

“Every businessperson I’ve talked to said, I will do whatever it takes, but I cannot afford to close down a second time,” he said. “But I don’t think anybody is saying, I’m going to throw caution to the wind, and I’m just going to open up and go back to what it was before.”

Ahlenius added that it’s been difficult for businesses to negotiate the politics of the pandemic and make sure they’re following all the rules.

“Yeah, a lot of confusion, right? We got a lot of different elected leaders saying different things,” he said.

It’s something of a power struggle with lives at stake. 

“What we’ve seen in Texas, specifically, is a desire by Gov. Abbott to have it both ways,” said Lindsay Wiley, professor at American University, Washington College of Law. “At times, he has emphasized that local governments do have control, but the reality is that he has blocked most local measures.”

Gov. Abbott didn’t respond to an interview request, but this week he did tell a Rio Grande Valley TV station that the area is the state government’s top priority for controlling the virus. The state sent 1,200 medical personnel there this week, and Abbott said more are coming.

“Our key focus right now is surging medical resources into the Rio Grande Valley to make sure that the medical needs of the people in the region are fully addressed,” he said.

Elsewhere in Texas, the mayor of Austin along with a county judge in Houston have also battled with Abbott over local orders that the governor said overstepped state mandates.

In Georgia, the governor is suing the mayor of Atlanta over a mask requirement in her city.

Wiley said these battles between state and local authorities are arising in part because of Washington, D.C.

“What the federal role here should be is clear messaging, clear guidance and resources,” she said. “And they failed to deliver on all of those responsibilities.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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