Texas’ top officials on Tuesday sought to allay concerns about a statewide increase in cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations by explaining that there will be a hospital bed for you or your loved one if it’s needed. Their message seemed to be: You will probably get it, and we’ll be able to treat you, but we’re not putting plans in place to protect you from it. Masks aren’t required in public places. Restaurants and bars don’t have to close or pause service if an employee tests positive. They don’t even have to announce it. The state government’s response has shifted to personal responsibility as the virus spreads. In fact, Gov. Greg Abbott began his Tuesday press conference by saying, “All of us have to coexist with COVID-19.”
Let’s talk about what that looks like with the way Texas has been reopened. In the past 10 days, Dallas County has added more COVID-19 diagnoses than all but five other counties in the United States. The five above us includes Harris County, which has an additional 2 million people. In that time period, we added 2,996 cases on 20,423 tests, a positivity rate of 15 percent. There has not been a significant daily increase in testing during that time period.
Those numbers do not yet account for Wednesday’s addition of 413 new cases in Dallas County. That’s the most in a single day and the highest per-day jump; Tuesday’s daily total was 306. Hospitalizations in Dallas County have jumped by 40 percent in the past two weeks—293 to 414—while the 19-county emergency region for North Texas shows an increase of 31 percent, 582 to 765. An increase in the state’s numbers can partially be attributed to lagging reports from jails and smaller counties. Dallas County’s growth is believed to be solely from community spread.
“The governor’s Open Texas plan did not follow the CDC guidelines and did not seek the input of any of the health experts in any of the large urban areas in Texas,” County Judge Clay Jenkins told me. He was referring to the need to see new cases and hospitalizations decrease for 14 consecutive days before beginning to reopen. “What is happening now was predicted by all the doctors. But the good news is we found out that masking can really help.”
Since opening the economy, Abbott has encouraged mask wearing and standing 6 feet away from other people. But he hasn’t codified those practices, and he hasn’t given local officials much leeway to do that themselves. In recent days, he has blamed twentysomethings for not wearing masks and pilloried mayors and county judges for not using “the tools available” through his emergency order. Mayors of the largest urban cities signed a letter urging the governor for permission to issue mask mandates to residents just yesterday.
“When you have a press conference and you tell people it’s safe to go to a movie or a restaurant or now it’s safe to go to a bar and a bowling alley and Six Flags and all these different things, they can’t help but think if it’s safe to do that, then it must be safe to have all my cousins over for a barbecue,” Jenkins said.
During his press conference, Abbott chided Jenkins for requesting the ability to fine individuals who were not wearing masks inside stores, saying the judge was only interested in “putting people in jail.” (Jenkins has said repeatedly that he is not interested in jailing people for violating a health order.)
The state’s guidance has been broad and shifting since the pandemic began. For example, in May, Dallas County vowed to cite or close any business that was violating mandates requiring physical distancing and hygiene measures, like providing hand sanitizer to patrons. The county also required residents to wear masks when they entered businesses. On May 12, Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to Dallas County and others saying such measures were against the governor’s emergency order. So Jenkins backed off. The county began a public information campaign, urging people to wear masks and developing a color-coded system that advised residents on what was safe and what wasn’t. We’ve been at “red”—stay home, stay safe—since the color codes were unveiled.
But none of that had teeth. You saw that in other markets, too. Grocer HEB announced it would no longer require customers to wear masks because it’s unenforceable.
Today, Abbott appeared to change his mind about masks. He allowed Bexar County’s judge to fine businesses that would not require their customers to wear masks, saying that was in line with the order. (It is “not inconsistent with the Governor’s executive order,” an Abbott spokesperson told the Texas Tribune.)
Now counties can put the onus on businesses to require masks by fining them instead of individuals. Jenkins said he’s planning to call an emergency meeting with the Dallas County Commissioners Court to get approval for a similar order and has support from HEB, the Texas Retailers Association, the Dallas Regional Chamber, and more. Jenkins said he planned to issue the order “in the same soft way” that the county did before the governor stepped in. During those six weeks, just 12 citations were issued and only one didn’t follow it.
Evidence is piling up that masks and social distancing are an effective combination in stopping the transmission of the virus. A recent Texas A&M Study found that wearing masks likely reduced infections by more than 78,000 in Italy and more than 66,000 in New York City over a three week period. Success with cloth masks requires everyone you come into contact with to also have face coverings, however. “This inexpensive practice, in conjunction with social distancing and other procedures, is the most likely opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic,” read a quote from the lead researcher and the Harold J. Haynes Chair in the College of Geo-Sciences, Renyi Zhang.
Meanwhile, in Dallas County and other large urban areas, new diagnoses and hospitalizations are continuing their upward climb. Texas remains second to only California in most cases added over the past two weeks.
“As leaders, we have to take responsibility for our actions and it’s just frankly disingenuous for us to blame twentysomethings or blame mayors or blame other people for the consequences of our actions,” Jenkins said. “And when I say our actions I ain’t talking about mine.”