Local officials from across the state expressed their opinions of Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest course correction to a more open Texas, giving Texans an idea of what political fights may lie ahead.
On Tuesday, Abbott announced his latest executive order.
I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%.
I also ended the statewide mask mandate.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) March 2, 2021
Citizens expressed concerns about still being left to the mercy of local officials. Texas Scorecard contacted the county commissioners and county judges of Texas’ major urban hubs, asking if they intend to oppose Abbott’s action.
No one from Tarrant or Travis counties provided answers to our questions.
Tarrant County and Fort Worth announced an end to their local mask mandates. However, sources informed Texas Scorecard the county is still mandating masks for citizens when they enter county property.
Tarrant’s “Health and Safety Policy” for county buildings can be found here.
Other officials responded as to whether their county would oppose Abbott’s course change.
“Harris County policy is set by [the] Commissioners Court, so this would need to be decided by a vote of the full court,” replied Joe Stinebaker, director of communications for Harris County Commissioner R. Jack Cagle (R). “As of now, the next planned meeting of [the] Commissioners Court is March 9.”
“I don’t know yet what the County will do, but I strongly support the Governor’s move,” replied Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch (R).
“I don’t think there’s any way to challenge,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff (D) told Texas Scorecard. “It’s real clear [that Abbott’s] powers supersede the power of local government.”
Wolff was the local official who discovered a loophole he could use to compel citizens to wear masks. Last summer, Bexar County threatened businesses with $1,000 fines if they didn’t make those within their properties wear masks.
Wolff was asked if he would have that option available to him now. “No,” he said. “I put that in, and [Abbott], you know, went along with it.”
At the time, Abbott claimed Wolff “finally figured out” a “plan in place all along.”
“Now in his order today, it’s totally up to the business to decide whether to have a face mask or anything. It’s totally up to you,” Wolff said.
He was asked if he saw any wiggle room at all for local officials.
“We haven’t found anything that would give us the ability to do much,” he replied. “The only thing that we can do is continue to plead with people to continue it up.”
Wolff said he will notify Texas Scorecard if they find any wiggle room in Abbott’s latest order that the county plans to use.
He also expressed misgivings about Abbott’s latest order, saying they have 464 people in the hospital and 199 in the ICU. “We know that next week is spring break, and it’s the most irresponsible group that will easily bring it back home to mom and dad and grandma,” he said. “So, we just think it’s premature to be doing that and irresponsible and really didn’t leave any authority for us to do whatever we need to do to protect our citizens.”
Dr. Richard Bartlett disagrees that now is a time of distress regarding the Chinese coronavirus. “Overall, because of herd immunity and early outpatient therapy strategies with inhaled budesonide for early therapy, we are on the end of COVID,” he said.
Wolff was asked if he’d reissue COVID “mitigation strategies,” as Abbott referred to them, should hospitalizations rise above 15 percent.
“First of all, if we ever got up to 15 [percent] again, that means [we’d] have about 1,500 in the hospital. We’d have numerous deaths before it even got to that,” Wolff said. “The second thing is: Even if it got to that, what you can do is pretty meaningless. Because [Abbott] says, ‘Okay, you can mandate a mask, but you can’t impose a penalty for it. You cannot impose a penalty on a customer or businesses.’”
Wolff said the current hospitalization numbers for their region are 8.3 percent by the state’s metrics, but 10.6 percent by the county’s metrics.
Wolff said the state measures hospitalization differently than counties do. “They measured all the beds … you’ve got. We measure it by staffing. And so we’re always higher, and the state numbers [are] always low.”
“As a doctor who works in the emergency room, I know it’s up to a doctor’s individual judgment whether to hospitalize a patient or not,” Dr. Bartlett previously told Texas Scorecard. “It is subjective to some degree, and so there are patients that are put in hospitals by some doctors that would not be put in hospitals by other doctors. That’s a fact. And that’s not just with COVID.”
Commissioners Cagle (Harris County) and Koch (Dallas County) were asked where they’d stand if their county judges reissued mandates should hospitalization rise above 15 percent.
“I do not believe that I would support the judge reactivating mitigation efforts if we reached above 15 percent,” Koch continued. “If there was a scenario where you had a new strain that was more deadly and evaded the protection of the vaccine, I would consider it. Otherwise, we know how this thing has generally worked, and if we continue to vaccinate at our current pace, we will reach herd immunity by June, at the latest, and April, at the earliest.”
“Commissioner Cagle has said that, as someone who has had COVID-19 and recovered—and has lost friends to the virus—he is extremely aware of the pandemic’s dangers,” Stinehart said. “However, in his discussions with his constituents, he has also been made equally aware of the genuine economic strain and physical stress being inflicted on families by governmental COVID restrictions. It is his desire to balance the two as much as possible to minimize both.”
Would Cagle support Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) reissuing mandates should the 15 percent threshold be crossed?
“As a general rule, Commissioner Cagle does not comment on how he might vote under hypothetical situations,” Stinehart replied.
Recently introduced House Bill 3 would limit local officials’ power during a pandemic emergency but increase the governor’s and federal government’s authority. Former State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, a constitutional law expert, has said, “It isn’t a solution to anything.”
“The solution is to eliminate all restrictions since the evidence shows reducing business capacity or wearing masks has no material effect on the spread of COVID,” he told Texas Scorecard.
Concerned citizens may contact their state representative or state senator.
This article has been updated since publication.