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Texas: Virus cases spike while local and state officials bicker over face mask mandates

April Simpson, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

DALLAS -- Every day, Texas continues to break records in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, rivaling hot spots such as Florida and Arizona as the new center of the U.S. pandemic.

As the situation escalates -- spiking to a record 6,584 new cases Wednesday and adding more than 5,000 new infections almost every day last week -- Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has consistently touted the ways in which Texans can stay safe: Wear a mask, sanitize often, social distance. Last week, he encouraged Texans to just stay indoors, then said he'd put a pause on reopening businesses. By the end of the week, he ordered bars to close and restaurants to cut their occupancy from 75% to 50%.

Yet even as Abbott has warned that Texas will take further measures if the situation doesn't improve, he has refused to allow local officials to penalize people who decline to wear masks in public. However, earlier this month he began allowing local officials to penalize businesses that don't require employees and customers wear masks.

And he has plenty of company: Across the country, local officials and governors continue to bicker publicly about who will establish safety measures. In many of the cases, Republican governors, like Abbott, deny local leaders the right to impose their own safety rules, arguing instead that advice makes more sense than mandates, even amid sharply rising caseloads. The arguments beg the question of how state and local officials plan to agree on safety precautions in a new normal for months to come.

Consider the squabbles springing up: Several Texas mayors petitioned Abbott to let them issue mask mandates for their cities, to no avail.

In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey at first refused to issue a statewide mask requirement and told local officials they couldn't either. He relented on local control earlier this month, though Arizona's caseload remains among the fastest-growing in the nation.

 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said he'd withhold federal CARES Act funding from any county that doesn't follow state safety measures. Taking an opposite approach, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, has threatened to withhold federal coronavirus aid to localities that do impose mask mandates.

"I think what we're going to wind up seeing is a series of these kinds of awkward compromises in which the governor and then local governments try to continue to assert their primacy," said James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Beneath the power dynamics between Texas state and local officials are tensions related to the consolidation of power in recent years that's strengthened the authority of the state's executive branch at the expense of the legislature and local governments, Henson said.

"I think you're bound to get pushback from one end to the other if you try to enforce uniform policies across the state," Henson said.

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