Texas city and county leaders ask Gov. Greg Abbott for authority to implement local stay-at-home orders

Health care workers collect coronavirus tests at a drive-thru site in the Fifth Ward in Houston. Photo credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

At the beginning of the pandemic, local officials across the state implemented stay-at-home orders for their regions. But now, with cases across Texas’ metros surging, those leaders say Abbott has stripped them of the authority to reinstate the same measures.

By CASSANDRA POLLOCK  Texas Tribune JUNE 29, 2020

As Texas grapples with soaring coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, local elected officials in some of the state’s most populous counties are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to roll back business reopenings and allow them to reinstate stay-at-home orders for their communities in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Officials in Harris, Bexar, Dallas and Travis counties have either called on or reached out to the governor in recent days, expressing a desire to implement local restrictions for their regions and, in some cases, stressing concerns about hospital capacity.

Local governments across the state implemented stay-at-home orders, which generally direct businesses deemed nonessential to shut down, to varying degrees in March before the governor issued a statewide directive at the beginning of April. Abbott’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of April, when he began announcing phased reopenings in the state and forcing local governments to follow his lead. Since then, a number of local officials, many of whom have been critical of Abbott’s reopening timeline, have argued that the jurisdiction to reinstate such directives is no longer in their hands.

“If you are not willing to take these actions on behalf of the state, please roll back your restriction on local leaders being able to take these swift actions to safeguard the health of our communities,” Sam Biscoe, interim Travis County judge, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Monday.

Biscoe asked Abbott “to roll all the way back to Stay Home orders based on worsening circumstances,” further cap business occupancy, mandate masks, and ban gatherings of 10 or more people.

Officials in Bexar County also wrote a similar letter to the governor Monday, saying that “the ability to tailor a response and recovery that fits the San Antonio region’s need is vital as we look forward to a healthier future.”

“Our region’s hospital capacity issues and economic circumstances require stronger protocols to contain the spread of this disease,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote. The two asked Abbott to “restore the ability for the City of San Antonio to take additional local preventative measures, including potential Stay Home/Work Safe restrictions.” They also asked the governor to mandate face coverings for people who are outside a household and issue “clearer language that strictly limits social gatherings,” among other things.

Abbott, whose office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, took his most drastic move yet Friday to respond to the surge in cases this month, ordering bars to close again and lowering restaurant occupancy to 50%. Before that order, bars were allowed to operate at 50% capacity and restaurants at 75% capacity under a phased reopening Abbott has led since late April — a process that at times has drawn criticism from public health experts and local officials who argued the state was reopening too quickly.

Later Friday, Abbott publicly expressed regret for the first time over his decision to let bars reopen, saying in an evening interview with KVIA-TV in El Paso that the “bar setting, in reality, just doesn’t work with a pandemic.”

Meanwhile, counties and cities across the state have implemented face mask requirements for businesses after Wolff, the Bexar County judge, moved to do so without facing opposition from Abbott. The governor had previously issued an executive order banning local governments from imposing fines or penalties on people who chose not to wear a face mask in public.

Local leaders have also voiced concerns about the testing capacity of large cities. In Travis County, Biscoe explained that because of the “rapidly increasing demand,” officials are rationing testing only for people with symptoms. The stress on the system is also making contact tracing efforts more difficult.

“In summary, the rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote.

Biscoe said the regional hospital system has hit about 70% of its capacity, which has prompted Austin Public Health to begin working on an alternative care site. A spokesperson for Austin Mayor Steve Adler did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Officials in Harris County have also considered plans for a temporary facility. Over the weekend, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who oversees the state’s largest county, suggested in an interview with ABC-13 that she was pushing for the authority to issue another stay-at-home order. A spokesperson for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

And in North Texas, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins sent a letter to Abbott over the weekend, requesting that the governor consider a list of recommendations from a citywide public health committee, such as instituting a 30-day stay-at-home order and mandating masks.

“I recommend that you enact these requirements statewide, or at the very least, regionally. If not, please rescind your prior order restricting local control and allow Dallas County to implement the above recommendations in an effort to slow the spread of the rampant and devastating COVID-19 virus,” Jenkins wrote in a letter Saturday. “Lives depend on swift action.”

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson has not publicly weighed in on whether he supports the governor reauthorizing local officials to implement stay-at-home directives. The mayor has asked Abbott to consider implementing a statewide mask policy and adopting a statewide or regional approach to curbing the spread of the virus in an attempt to minimize confusion and increase compliance, according to a spokesperson in Johnson’s office.

Juan Pablo Garnham contributed to this report. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.