A year of decision-making about COVID-19 brought ongoing tension between state and local leadership in Texas into sharp focus. The tension was perhaps highest in the early days, with local mask mandates being swiftly rescinded by state executive order. But as the year wore on, a more predictable rhythm fell into place with many local leaders proclaiming “recommendations” for slowing the spread of coronavirus knowing full well that they could never enforce what they were asking. Meanwhile, some cities challenged state authority very little; others stood somewhere in the middle, participating in a delicate push-pull to follow state guidelines while appealing to locals’ demands.
Texas Standard tracked these decisions starting in March of 2020 though January 2021, speaking with public radio and other reporters in 15 cities across the state. Below are some of the takeaways about what we learned observing the power dynamic between state and local leadership over the course of the pandemic.
Where local leaders had the greatest influence over pandemic-related decisions: Marfa and Far West Texas
Jeff Davis, Brewster and Presidio Counties, as well as the city of Marfa, acted early by closing down short-term rentals, hotels, motels and RV parks to visitors to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Leaders in the region didn’t tangle much with state leadership when putting these measures into place. But the closures did lead to a lawsuit against Brewster County by the owners of the Gage Hotel in Marathon, whose owners argued that without their jobs, hotel employees would have to drop out of the workforce.
Where tension between state and local power was greatest: Midland-Odessa
Where the power dynamic changed the most over the last year:
Where state power was most influential:
Where Local Power Drove The Most COVID-19 Decisions: Marfa (?)
Where decisions were most mixed – the highest tension between state and local leadership: Houston
Takeaways: Reporters in most cities said tension between state and local leadership died down in the summer, after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued Executive Order XYZ. It limited local officials’ authority over mask mandates and SHUTDOWNS? But the tension didn’t go away.