For a trio with excellent news at last week’s press briefing about the viral pandemic’s impact on McLennan County, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver, County Judge Scott Felton and Dr. Jackson Griggs occasionally betrayed something between disbelief in our good fortune in plague times and the grim anticipation of a 16,000-pound weight crashing down on them all.
The good news: We’ve seen few new cases of COVID-19 in McLennan County and, at least for a couple of days, no hospitalizations, even with several active cases. Possibly anticipating that some naysayer would consequently pronounce the pandemic scare much ado about nothing, the mayor added: “For those who don’t think this was a real thing, you just need to look around a bit and you can find examples where things have not gone nearly this well.”
One example: Last weekend McLennan County had only four active cases — and the next smallest number of active cases in a Texas county of more than 200,000 in population was Nueces County with 48 active cases, partially due to outbreaks at a halfway house in Corpus Christi and a nearby meat-processing plant. Officials there say state officials should be heeding early White House guidelines suggesting a 14-day trend of decreasing numbers before further reopening of state commerce, a recommendation that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has ignored.
Even more incredible: We’ve still seen no COVID-19 cases in the 28 nursing homes and long-term care facilities in McLennan County (with 2,416 licensed beds) or at the jail, the latter not only overseeing about a thousand inmates but run by hundreds of jailers and administrative personnel who come and go with enormous potential to spread the SARS-CoV-2 contagion. And the testing positivity rate which Gov. Abbott is supposedly gauging in his reopening of state commerce is in McLennan County, Deaver said, “now down below half a percent, which is just almost unbelievable to the point I’m not sure I do believe it.”
Not bad for a county that, when local officials issued shelter-in-place orders in March, reportedly had one of the highest per-capita rates of COVID-19 infection in a Texas county of more than 200,000.
Dr. Griggs, representing the local medical community, attributes our success to low population density compared to other urban areas — and thus fewer complications such as packed, big-city transit systems and bustling hubs of international travel. “But then on the other hand, actions that have been taken also account for reasons why we have not seen the kind of incidence and prevalence that other urban centers have seen,” he said. “And I say this even when they’re not in my presence: I commend our city and county leadership for their decision to shelter in place. I think that is very, very important.”
The mayor credits the strong working relationship between the city of Waco and County Judge Felton, resulting in safety declarations complementing each other, and the fact Waco remains a “very collaborative community.”
So why the anxiety in the air? Because dark political forces continue pressing the spectre of lost constitutional rights while right-wing media foster skepticism about the contagiousness, physical devastation and lethality of COVID-19. These forces have sunk the governor’s reputation as a tower of resolve in any crisis, prompting him to abandon his own executive order vowing stiff fines ($1,000) and jail time (180 days) for those defying his public safety orders. After right-wing loons in his own political party rallied to champion openly defiant, briefly jailed Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther, Abbott ordered a hasty retreat.
Given the flip-flopping circumstances, the Texas District & County Attorneys Association issued to prosecutors this astonishing advisory concerning Abbott and enforcement of his orders: “As it’s been pointed out before, if the governor is going to keep changing the tune he plays as he leads the state out of this pandemic, there is little incentive to put your own necks on the line to enforce an order that could be invalidated the next day. If you do that, you may simply be making someone else’s problem your problem, and that rarely ends well for the one at the bottom of the marionette’s strings.” Ouch!
While the mayor and county judge are more properly deferential to the Republican governor than the clearly exasperated TDCAA is, one can argue this latest chaotic dustup is part of the broader war Abbott and Republican state lawmakers declared on the concept of local control a few legislative sessions ago — except that state officials seem unsure if they want to be calling the shots when the politics are ricocheting madly in pandemic times, even in Republican circles. Judge Felton, also a Republican, has noted that the pandemic situation in McLennan County in March was such that local officials “had to take some action to slow the spread, and it was on us to do it.” The governor, he said, initially “pitched the ball” to local officials in terms of the decision-making, “but what happened is the governor switched back around to start making all the rules and they had precedence over any local [decisions] a city or county may have, so now we’re trying to more explain what his orders are.” Which, the judge conceded, isn’t always easy.
Last week Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — ever the model of political grandstanding — warned cities, counties and courts against overstepping their bounds in restrictions deployed to fight the pandemic, sidestepping the fact that Gov. Abbott helped precipitate the Luther uproar through what apparently was his own executive overreach. With the White House having abdicated all responsibility in our national crisis by suppressing more detailed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safely reopening the nation and armed terrorists egged on by the president closing down one state legislature, local officials should savor their recent successes: Given the political cowardice, rampant pandering and mixed messaging of state and federal leaders, this crisis will be far harder to manage in the weeks and months to come.