After leaving cities and counties to handle coronavirus on their own, state intervention could be too little, too late.
Governor Greg Abbott’s office told reporters this week that cities and counties “have done a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities” during the COVID-19 pandemic, insisting that county and city leaders “can make the right decision that is best for their community,” because that “is the way the structure works” here.
“Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman told the Texas Tribune. “These cities and counties are following the proper protocol and guidance that they are receiving from their local health departments.”
On Thursday, the governor finally took statewide action, issuing an executive order that temporarily banned gatherings of 10 or more, prohibits dine-in services at restaurants and bars, stopped visitation to nursing homes and retirement facilities, and closed schools and gyms through April 3 (he noted that it could be extended). This followed media reports criticizing the governor’s slow action—including shaming from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
At a press conference announcing the executive order Thursday, Abbott emphasized once again that deferring to cities and counties in the face of disasters has worked in Texas. The order didn’t stem from a change of heart, he indicated, but was prompted by the size and scope of coronavirus.
But his championing of local control, even as he invoked state intervention, falls in sharp contrast to his relentless and hostile attack on cities and counties in recent years, laying bare the hypocrisy of his ideological war on municipalities. Abbott only trusts democratically elected councils and commissions, mayors, county leaders, and school boards to make the best choice for their local communities, it seems, when they aren’t implementing local regulations largely meant to help the working class and the most vulnerable among us.
That trust was nowhere to be found when Abbott and GOP lawmakers tried to strip down municipal autonomy over the last two legislative sessions, taking aim at ridesharing companies’ fingerprint background checks; measures to boost affordable housing; fair chance hiring; heritage tree safeguards; plastic bag bans; regulations of short-term rentals; and LGBTQ protections. (All the while the GOP tout their hallowed allegiance to “local control” by defending their anti-city attacks as measures to grant ostensible “liberty” and “freedom.”)
They’ve succeeded in demonizing immigrant communities, tying the hands of city and county officials with a law that punishes so-called sanctuary cities. They jeopardized local health care, like county partnerships that provide preventative health education, by bannings cities from contracting with abortion providers. They’ve overridden Austin’s homeless camping ordinance with lies and disinformation. And they mounted a ruthless legal battle against city ordinances in Austin and San Antonio that would have granted employees paid sick leave—a measure that would help mitigate our current dire situation.
Abbott and the state legislature have worked overtime to either preempt local decision making or bludgeon the decisions that do get made into oblivion. The motive isn’t merely to assert state power, but to suppress cities, which have become growing bastions of progressive power.
But until Thursday, as this sweeping global pandemic afflicted at least 83 Texans and led to three deaths, we heard a wholly different tune. Although Abbott has decried the local ordinances he’s targeted as giving way to an unworkable and confusing “patchwork quilt” of regulations that differ from city to city, for weeks he allowed that patchwork to blanket Texas.
Let’s be clear, Abbott did take some action before Thursday: He’s declared a state of disaster; allowed state agency employees to work from home; waived standardized testing requirements for public schools; dropped regulations on the trucking industry to ease transport of supplies to grocery stores; and activated (but not yet deployed) the National Guard.
However, it took Abbott—who oversees the second most populous state in the U.S.—weeks to take an aggressive and uniform approach exemplified by other states, creating inconsistency and mixed messages that public health experts say could make it much more difficult to measure the success of containment methods in the long run. Based on metrics like prevention and containment, risk factors and infrastructure, and economic impact, Texas ranked nearly last among states who have been most aggressive against the coronavirus, according to a recent report by WalletHub. Before Thursday’s order, the National Governors Association listed Texas among seven states that had taken few major actions in response to the virus.
About 30 states (including neighboring Louisiana, Arkansas, and New Mexico) have already managed to get ahead of the curve by ordering temporary school closures, and more than a dozen governors have shut down in-person patronage of restaurants and bars. Some states, including Utah and New Mexico, have limited mass gatherings to 100 people. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nine states have enacted legislation that either appropriates additional funding for coronavirus related tasks or transfers money from the state’s rainy day fund.
Meanwhile, with little guidance and resources from the top, Texas cities were scrambling to make the call for themselves. Houston, Dallas, and Austin have closed restaurants, but other cities like Frisco did not. While many school districts had temporarily shuttered, no statewide order was in effect. Some cities banned public gatherings, including Austin and Lubbock, but others didn’t.
State Representative Erin Zwiener said the “wildly” conflicting responses among the counties she oversees—Hays and Blanco—created uncertainty and panic. In a recent letter to Abbott, Zwiener calls for him to communicate the seriousness of the threat, boost confidence in the state response, and give local communities and health care providers clear guidance.
“It stings to come from a legislative session where local governments were hamstrung, to then see them left to fend for themselves in the midst of this crisis,” Zwiener tells the Observer. “We need our governor to tell people: Don’t worry about your mortgage, rent, or how you’re going to pay for groceries right now. We need to hear confidently that we can put public safety first.”
After first “empowering” and deferring to localities, Abbott—under public pressure—finally delivered a statewide policy. But the pandemic has already unveiled the double standard when it comes to Abbott’s war on local control. Moving forward, local officials should not sweep the blatant hypocrisy under the rug; rather, they should aggressively remind Abbott of his own words when the pandemic passes and they are once again faced with attacks at the city level. Local leaders “can make the right decision that is best for their community,” because that “is the way the structure works” in the state of Texas.
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