Tensions rise as Texas governor readies to lift more rules

A woman wearing a face mask for protection against COVID-19 passes a business that has reopened in San Antonio, Thursday, May 14, 2020. Texas attorney general Ken Paxton has warned officials in San Antonio, Austin and Dallas that the cities could face lawsuits if they do not relax coronavirus measures he says go further than state law allows.

Although a dispute is growing between officials in some Texas cities and counties and the state’s leaders over pandemic restrictions, that’s not the case in Longview and Gregg County.

More than two weeks into the reopening of Texas, coronavirus cases are climbing, including single-day highs of 1,458 new cases and 58 deaths Thursday. Gov. Greg Abbott has defended the pace by emphasizing steadying hospitalization rates and pointing out that Texas’ 1,200 deaths are still behind similarly big states, including California and Florida.

But on the cusp of even more restrictions ending Monday, including gyms being cleared to reopen, cities such as Dallas, Austin and San Antonio are trying to keep some guardrails — an effort being fought by state leaders, including Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In Texas, the governor’s orders supersede all local mandates during the pandemic.

Longview Mayor Andy Mack said he believes Abbott “is doing what he feels best for the state of Texas” as far as easing restrictions, “and it’s hard to hard to throw a cast net and expect it to be equal for every area.”

After the city recorded 28 new cases Thursday, most attributed to a senior living facility, Mack renewed his efforts to urge residents to take precautions.

“Every night for (two-plus) months my social media team has been pleading with you all to shelter in place and social distance,” he said in a statement. “Night after night we are here answering your questions and trying our best to express the importance of respecting this virus all while trying to be respectful of your liberties and free will. We just don’t know how many more confirmed positives it is going to take before people realize it could be them or their loved ones. ... Please, think things through before you run that errand.”

On Friday, the mayor refused to criticize Abbott’s decisions.

“He is doing what he thinks is best for the entire state, and we have to respect that,” he said. “Would I do things differently? I don’t know. I’m not in his position. When we had to make our own decisions before he intervened, that’s what we did. We made the decisions that we thought were best for the city of Longview, and who knows if those were right or wrong. So it’s very easy to sit back and criticize somebody as an armchair quarterback, but until you sit in that chair and have to make decisions beforehand, it changes the perspective.”

Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt said weighing shutdowns against public safety has been a “tough balance.”

“The governor is taking baby steps and being very clear that everybody has got to be very careful and very responsible not only for themselves but for their neighbors,” he said Friday. “That’s been very clear from the very beginning, but shutting down the entire government and the safety aspect has just been a tough balance.”

‘Timing’

The renewed tensions come at a moment when Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned Congress this past week of “needless suffering and death” if the U.S. moves too quickly. Nevertheless, Wisconsin’s courts tossed out the state’s stay-at-home orders, throwing communities into chaos as some bars opened immediately while strict local restrictions were kept elsewhere.

In Georgia, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has also expressed unease with the speed that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has reopened the state. Oklahoma lawmakers, irritated by local officials who imposed stricter measures during this health crisis, passed a House bill Thursday that would weaken the power of cities during the next one.

And in Texas, Paxton this past 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 one day after El Paso pleaded to postpone easing up on any more lockdown measures in light of the number of COVID-19 cases there surging 60 percent 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. The governor moved 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 surged in recent days, according to state health officials.

Overflow hospitals set up in Dallas and Houston were dismantled without ever being used, which Abbott has pointed to as a reminder that the virus has not overwhelmed Texas. 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.”

‘Doesn’t feel right’

In Austin, restaurants have grumbled over recommendations to log dine-in customers for the purposes of contact tracing, coupled with a warning that health officials otherwise might have to publicly out eateries if outbreaks spread. Some restaurateurs saw that as a threat, but at The Peached Tortilla, owner Eric Silverstein says his industry has to do what it takes to reopen.

“We have no choice,” he said. “You kind of have to go back to doing some form of business.”

At Guero’s Taco Bar, which offers the occasional celebrity sighting, a log of every diner and where they sat is begrudgingly in the works.

“It seems like a huge invasion of privacy,” said owner Cathy Lipincott, who is nonetheless trying to comply with Austin’s local public health guidelines by asking, but not requiring, customers to give their information.

A few blocks away at Brentwood Social House, a neighborhood coffee shop, owner Suzanne Daniels isn’t so sure it’s time to reopen. Though her competitors have reopened, her indoor seating remains closed, and she doesn’t know when she’ll feel safe to follow them.

“It feels early,” Daniels said. “In my gut, it doesn’t feel right or good.”

— The Associated Press and staff writer Jimmy Daniell Isaac contributed to this report.