AUSTIN, Texas — Two weeks into the reopening of Texas, coronavirus cases are climbing. New outbreaks still crop up.
Few states are rebooting quicker than Texas, where stay-at-home orders expired May 1. With cases still rising, including single-day state highs of 1,458 new cases and 58 deaths on Thursday, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has defended the pace by emphasizing that hospitalization and infection rates are steady, and pointing out that Texas’ 1,200 deaths still lag similarly big states, including California and Florida.
But on the cusp of even more restrictions ending Monday, including gyms being cleared to reopen, a political confrontation is growing over attempts by big cities to keep some guardrails in place. The dispute underscores the gulf between Democrats who run city and county government and GOP leaders who call the shots in the capital in Texas, where unlike in other states, the governor’s orders supersede all local mandates during the pandemic.
Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton this week lashed out at the cities of Dallas, Austin and San Antonio over what he called “unlawful” local orders that are tougher than restrictions prescribed by Abbott, and threatened lawsuits if the cities don’t back off.
The warning came after El Paso pleaded to postpone easing up on any more lockdown measures in light of the number of Covid-19 cases in the county surging 60% over the past two weeks.
“Unfortunately, a few Texas counties and cities seem to have confused recommendations with requirements and have grossly exceeded state law to impose their own will on private citizens and businesses,” Paxton said.
City leaders said their local orders, which include more stringent emphasis on face coverings in public and restaurant protocols that aren’t strictly enforced, don’t conflict.
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, the county’s top elected official, said he made his case to the governor during a phone call and asked for a few more weeks to assess data and reduce cases before more restrictions are lifted. But he doesn’t think he’ll get an answer before Abbott’s public announcement Monday.
“I’m not fighting his plan, I’m fighting his timing,” Samaniego said. “It looks like it would work for us months from now.”
The spat is a reversal from the early days of the outbreak in Texas, when Abbott gave cities and counties wide latitude to issue restrictions as they saw fit. But Abbott has since taken the reins over how quickly Texas will reboot, which last week included moving up the reopening of hair salons following complaints from conservatives.
Testing for most of May has fallen well short of Abbott’s stated goal of 30,000 per day, although testing numbers have surged in recent days, according to state health officials.
The rate of new cases in Texas has dropped since April even as testing has expanded, down to a seven-day average of 5.3%, according to data from Abbott’s office. But experts still worry.
“They see the decline going in and they pat themselves on the back and say, ‘Look at the good work we’ve done, now we can let this happen and open up things,’” said Dennis Perrotta, a retired state epidemiologist in Texas. “And then we get slammed with a second peak.”