Read Part 1

A year of pandemic decision-making brought long-standing tensions between state and local leadership in Texas into sharp focus. Tensions peaked early, as a visible power struggle over decision-making authority flared up in the spring of 2020 between Gov. Greg Abbott and city and county officials. The two factions – state and local – disagreed widely over whether mask ordinances and stay-at-home orders were needed and when. Abbott’s executive orders over the summer seemed to cool tensions, mainly because they left local leaders without much wiggle room to act independently.

But there were key moments later in the year when the rivalry resurfaced, including during the November general election and when vaccines finally became available in December to the most vulnerable Texans.

Texas Standard tracked all of these decisions between March 2020 and March 2021, and illustrated them here, in a timeline, map and chart below. It’s an effort to better understand Texas’ state-versus-local power dynamic, how it plays out across the state and, most importantly, how it has affected Texans’ health in a once-in-a-generation pandemic.

Who Stood Out?

The areas with the most STATE influence over COVID-19 decisions? Abilene, Waco*, Dallas/Fort Worth

The areas with the most LOCAL influence over COVID-19 decisions? Austin, San Antonio, Rio Grande Valley**

 

The areas with the greatest MIX of state and local decisions about COVID-19? Lubbock, Amarillo, Midland/Odessa

The Back And Forth

There was an ebb and flow to COVID decision-making. But overall, the state became more influential as time went on. Public radio reporters across Texas said this affected their cities in different ways. Here are some highlights:

“Gov. Abbott usurps local ordinances to open Texas in May, thereby undoing [Laredo’s] mask ordinance and opening bars, which Laredo’s health authority believes contributed to the city’s huge increase in cases in June and July.” – Julia Wallace, reporter, Laredo Morning-Times

“Early directives from local officials managed to keep community transmissions relatively low, at the time … compared to other major Texas counties.” – Lauren Terrazas, producer, Texas Pubic Radio, San Antonio, on local management of COVID-19 spread in the pandemic’s first weeks

“Hundreds of people gathered on our local beaches after [May reopening] orders. … It was only a matter of weeks that we saw a big surge in COVID-19 cases.” – Lon Gonzalez, News Director, KEDT Corpus Christi

“We have a Republican mayor and Democrat for county judge. But they worked together closely on all the local emergency orders and restrictions. The mayor was reluctant to criticize [Gov.] Abbott’s reopening plan but [the] county judge was vocal about risks of reopening too fast.” – Angela Kocherga, News Director, KTEP El Paso

“Lubbock Mayor Dan Pope said in May that shutting down a lot of the city earlier put us in a better position than others in the area who continued to see major outbreaks at that point (Amarillo, Abilene).” – Sarah Self-Walbrick, reporter, Texas Tech Public Media, Lubbock

“March/Spring Break is the height of our tourism season, and so for local officials to make that decision was pretty huge.” – Carlos Morales, News Director, Marfa Public Radio on area counties temporarily banning short-term rentals last spring

“Throughout the pandemic, many leaders in “Midessa” have either refused to make decisions or have been very slow to make decisions concerning COVID-19. … There has been a lot of talk about “personal responsibility” over the last few months.” – Mitch Borden, Midland/Odessa reporter, Marfa Public Radio

“Gov. Abbott’s various orders during the pandemic have been poorly received, but there hasn’t been much public resistance outside of grumbling.” – Mark Haslett, news director, KETR Northeast Texas

*Data for Waco only covers March-July 2020.

**Rio Grande Valley is reported on as a region by Texas Public Radio. Its coverage area mostly comprises Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties.

This project was produced by Caroline Covington and edited by Terri Langford.

With contributions from: Mitch Borden, Marfa Public Radio, Midland/Odessa; Sam Cedar, KWBU Waco; Heather Claborn, KACU Abilene; Chris Connelly, KERA North Texas; Lon Gonzalez, KEDT Corpus Christi; Angie Haflich, HPPC Amarillo; Mark Haslett, KETR Northeast Texas; Bret Jaspers, KERA North Texas; Angela Kocherga, KTEP El Paso; Matt Largey, KUT Austin; Reynaldo Leaños Jr., TPR Rio Grande Valley; Audrey McGlinchy, KUT Austin; Maria Mendez, TPR Laredo; Carlos Morales, Marfa Public Radio; Jan Ross Piedad, TPR San Antonio; Jen Rice, Houston Public Media; Sarah Self-Walbrick, Texas Tech Public Media, Lubbock; Lauren Terrazas, TPR San Antonio; Julia Wallace, Laredo Morning Times; Amarillo Globe-News.