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

Andy Uhler Jul 24, 2020
Heard on:
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
Heard on:
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

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

Give me a snapshot of the labor market in the U.S.

U.S. job openings in February increased more than expected, according to the Labor Department. Also, the economy added over 900,000 jobs in March. For all of the good jobs news recently, there are still nearly 10 million people who are out of work, and more than 4 million of them have been unemployed for six months or longer. “So we still have a very long way to go until we get a full recovery,” said Elise Gould with the Economic Policy Institute. She said the industries that have the furthest to go are the ones you’d expect: “leisure and hospitality, accommodations, food services, restaurants” and the public sector, especially in education.

What do I need to know about tax season this year?

Glad you asked! We have a whole separate FAQ section on that. Some quick hits: The deadline has been extended from April 15 to May 17 for individuals. Also, millions of people received unemployment benefits in 2020 — up to $10,200 of which will now be tax-free for those with an adjusted gross income of less than $150,000. And, for those who filed before the American Rescue Plan passed, simply put, you do not need to file an amended return at the moment. Find answers to the rest of your questions here.

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