Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has already seen his state’s reopening waylaid by a resurgent coronavirus pandemic this summer, so a recent tweet from the governor that seemed to indicate he could be ready to do it all over again has alarmed local officials.
“I’m concerned about how far he goes,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a Democrat, told The Daily Beast. “I’ll have to wait and see where he goes.”
The dynamics are just the latest in ongoing tensions between the red state governor and local blue leaders. In a tweet Monday, Abbott touted that he “said last month that Texas wouldn’t have anymore lockdowns—despite demands from mayors & county judges insisting on,” such a move.
“Since my last orders in July, Covid numbers have declined—most importantly hospitalizations,” Abbott said in the tweet. “I hope to provide updates next week about next steps.”
The governor’s tweet came in response to an account called “Deep in the Heart of Texas” tweeting at Abbott that “those of us in the restaurant industry need this clarity in our future,” after pointing to a video of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis saying earlier that day “we will never do any of these lockdowns again.”
No other details were given by the governor and a spokesperson for Abbott did not respond to requests for comment seeking more information.
The stakes for Abbott are high in Texas after the state’s reopening capsized this summer and cases surged, hitting nearly 10,800 new daily cases on July 15, according to state data. That same month, some Democratic leaders called for the governor to give them the power to do local stay at home orders.
The state’s situation may have improved since then, but Peter Jay Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, said Texas still has “a pretty high level of transmission.”
“I don’t know what the goals are then by rolling back,” Hotez said. “There’s no victory here. There’s still a very poor quality of life in the metro areas in Texas.”
As of Wednesday, the state’s test positivity rate stood at 8.98 percent, according to state health data, while hospitalizations in the state had fallen from nearly 10,900 on July 22 to 4,075 as of Thursday’s report with the daily new case number coming in at 3,899. And with those numbers in mind, the upcoming flu season is seen as another challenge that wouldn’t be made easier if the state reopens too quickly.
“Whether it’s Texas or not… I don't really understand why we would consider relaxing any type of public health measures that we have in place like masking and distancing and certain high risk areas being off limits, more or less, until we get past the flu season at least,” said Dr. Rodney E. Rohde, professor and chair of the clinical laboratory science program at Texas State University.
A handful of elected officials and public health experts stated bluntly that now isn’t the time for the governor to make a reopening push, with the possible reopening of bars in the state a major worry for some like Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.
“If the governor opens bars back up, or makes masking permissive rather than a requirement then he’ll squander the gains that we’ve worked so hard for and the community has sacrificed so long for and we’ll be right back in the mess that we were in a month after Open Texas,” Jenkins, a Democrat, warned.
The Houston area in particular has been hit hard by the coronavirus, and in Harris County the risk level is still listed as severe, meaning there is “a severe and uncontrolled level of COVID-19,” according to the county’s website. As The Daily Beast previously reported in July, a surge in cases were flooding the area’s health care system as calls for a lockdown became more persistent.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who in mid-July called for a two-week shutdown, picked the governor apart in a statement this week about the Republican’s handling of the pandemic pointing to “disastrous” results following the state’s reopening in May as he worried about the future.
“And now that numbers are better like in April, the governor is about to embark on the same course again,” Turner, a Democrat, said. “It is frustrating that he is making decisions that impact all of us without including local officials in the process. The State is about to repeat its mistake, expecting a different result.”
After Texas began reopening in May, Abbott’s reopening push fell apart in late June as the state’s coronavirus situation worsened and he halted the state’s re-opening over concerns about hospitalizations and new cases. In the days to come, the Republican also closed bars, limited restaurant capacity and made a statewide mask executive order for “counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases,” according to a July 2 statement from the governor’s office. More than 40 counties are exempt from the order, according to the Texas Division of Emergency Management.
When both policies and behaviors in Texas became more relaxed in early May that led to “alarming increases in cases and hospitalizations,” in some places the following month Lauren Ancel Meyers, the director of the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 modeling consortium, told The Daily Beast. The stricter policies and change in behavior that came about because of that then slowed transmission of the virus, Meyers said.
“The longer we hold on to the precautionary behavior and the policies the more we will see cases and hospitalizations continue to decline,” Meyers said. “It’s reasonable to consider changes in policy that may provide some economic and social relief, however, only if done with extreme caution and really strong messaging around the responsibility we all have to take precautions when we're going out in public, to not go out in public if we or anyone in our household even has the slightest symptom of COVID. ”
While some local officials were clearly troubled by what could come from Abbott’s office next week, Deaf Smith County Judge D.J. Wagner welcomed the idea of easing statewide restrictions.
“Oh absolutely,” the Republican said. “Yeah, we’ve got to get on with life.”
That wasn’t a feeling shared on the Texas/Mexico border by Maverick County Judge David Saucedo. The local Democrat warned that he didn’t think “we’re out of the woods yet,” and lamented that numbers in border communities have been “pretty high.”
“In my community, I'm seeing that we’re still a hotspot,” Saucedo said. “…After every holiday we’ve seen an uptick in cases go up and we don’t want to get into that danger zone again.”