As the COVID-19 pandemic developed, governors across the country declared disasters in their respective states.
These kinds of declarations can open up funding opportunities from the federal government, as well as empower executive branches to make a spending and public health decisions faster. Choices that might otherwise take months to approve – or that fell to city or county governments – can instead be executed in short order by the governor’s office.
Most states have ended their disaster declarations related to the pandemic. But Texas is an exception. Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott extended the declaration for another month.
Cayla Harris, Texas politics reporter for Hearst, spoke to the Texas Standard about the ripple effects of the extension.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: There are 11 other states besides Texas that still have some kind of disaster declaration in place because of the pandemic. Do you know which ones?
Cayla Harris: Yeah. So the National Academy for State Health Policy has a big tracker that goes through all the states and sees which ones still have emergency orders in effect. So other states like Georgia, Connecticut, Illinois, California – which we heard is going to end their emergency order on Feb. 28 – Washington, states like that.
And why exactly are these declaration orders being issued or kept in place?
So in Texas, the emergency order gives Abbott super, super broad authority to respond to the pandemic. So this means things like bypassing normal bidding processes for procuring equipment or something like that – during the height of the pandemic, remember when we needed a bunch of ventilators and masks and other personal protective equipment? But now, since we’re so far out from the pandemic start, the reason is actually because Governor Abbott wants to keep in place some executive orders that he issued last year, preventing local governments from instituting mask mandates, occupancy limits and vaccine mandates in like Austin and Houston and all the big cities that were interested in doing that.
Are we talking about power here? Does this come down to the authority of the governor?
Pretty much. I mean, Abbott and other Republicans – as you’re probably well aware; lots of listeners are well aware – have long feuded with local governments about who can institute roles when and where and what they are. Often times, Abbott has taken steps to increase his own power and take it away from local governments, especially Democrat-controlled governments.
How will this affect the policy options of city and county governments?
It doesn’t change much, honestly, because we’ve been under this disaster declaration since 2020. The ban on mask mandates and vaccine mandates was instituted last year. The Legislature also codified the ban on vaccine mandates. So this is more to do with the mask mandates and the occupancy restrictions. So it’s pretty much just the status quo that we’ve been living under for a year, I guess, two years at this point.
What is the disaster declaration’s relationship to the pandemic in the way that we’re experiencing in real life? How do you how do you square the order with what Texans are experiencing in the real world?
So like you mentioned, I mean, people aren’t thinking about COVID as much. I remember during the 2020 elections, we heard about it a lot on the campaign trail. We’re just not hearing that as much anymore. That doesn’t mean that COVID is over, though. People should still be protecting themselves. Obviously, health experts recommend wearing masks and distancing yourself from other people – all the things we learned in 2020. And with all of these new variants that we don’t know a ton about, they’re saying, you know, get vaccinated and be prepared, because during the winter months we’re gathering inside more. We’re in closer contact with people, especially older people, who might be vulnerable.
So in those situations when we might see a spike in COVID cases this winter, then in theory, Governor Abbott could use this disaster declaration to speed up resources to counties that need it, make beds available in hospitals, or, you know, send equipment to them, get more equipment, buy more equipment, that sort of thing.
I notice that the Hearst papers have picked up on the governor’s renewal of COVID order. Not a lot of other media outlets have. I wonder what impact, if any, this might have on the public’s perception of where we are with the pandemic. Does this reinforce the underlying message from health experts, or does it shake things up in any meaningful way?
Honestly, no. I think, like I said before, this is just kind of the status quo at this point. Abbott doesn’t have any plans to end the order. You’re seeing some whispers in other states that they are. And so I highly doubt we’ll see any action on this from anyone. This might come up in the legislative session next year; we’re back in January. But on a broad scale, I honestly don’t think there’s going to be much of an impact.
Why would the Legislature take this up, and in what respect?
I can’t predict what the Legislature is going to do, obviously. But in the last legislative session, you’ll remember some lawmakers were talking about codifying these bans on mask mandates or taking some power away from the governor’s office. Some conservative lawmakers and even Democratic lawmakers were concerned about the level of power that Governor Abbott had during the pandemic. But last legislative session, they declined to realign those powers. And so there might be another discussion about that this time around. Whether it will go anywhere is a question mark.