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