As Texas and Arizona face surging outbreaks of COVID-19, the two sunbelt states’ biggest cities have a simple request for their governors: give us back the power to slow the spread.
The battles have played out over the past days and weeks, as mayors and county executives have signed letters, issued angry statements, and agitated for the right to issue local public health regulations during a pandemic.
But over the past two days, as hospitalizations in the two states’ biggest cities mounted, the governors have also begun to relent.
As Texas doubled its previous one-day high for case totals, Governor Greg Abbott (R) signaled his approval for a way around the state’s ban on municipalities enforcing their own mask-wearing regulations.
And in Arizona, Governor Greg Ducey (R) late Wednesday night allowed cities to start issuing mandatory public mask-wearing regulations, as the state tallied a one-day record-high 2,519 new virus cases on Wednesday.
The phenomenon appears to be limited to states where case growth is increasing at a high rate, with other GOP governors signaling their ongoing commitment to reining in local officials. In Nebraska, for example, Governor Pete Ricketts (R) reportedly told local officials that cities and towns which issue mask-wearing regulations would not receive federal coronavirus aid money.
But in Texas and Arizona, the split pits largely Democratic cities against red-state governors, who have begun to budge towards allowing the municipalities to issue their own regulations, and enforce them, as case counts — and, crucially, hospitalizations — have mounted.
Dr. Joe Gerald, Program Director of Public Health Policy & Management at the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health, told TPM that the situation would be helped by dealing with “low-hanging fruit — requiring mask-wearing in public spaces, doing more to limit or ban large gatherings to prevent super-spreading events” — things that would mitigate the spread of COVID-19 without issuing a shelter-in-place order.
“But we’re not doing these easy things in Arizona,” Gerald added.
With the governor’s go-ahead, city mayors in Arizona have now begun to issue regulations, including for the cities of Tucson, Flagstaff, and Mesa.
Tempe, Arizona mayor Mark Mitchell said in a statement that he would begin to require public mask wearing on Thursday morning. Phoenix — the epicenter of the state’s epidemic — will also institute a mask-wearing requirement.
“The Governor has stated that he believes that the ‘government closest to the people’ is the most effective. We agree, and we hope that the expertise of cities is considered as we continue our fight against a virus that has killed too many Arizonans,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (D) said in a statement.
Governor Ducey issued the order stripping Arizona localities of the authority to issue public health regulations that went beyond the governor’s orders in late March, after several cities had already begun to issue their own regulations. In Tucson, for example, Mayor Regina Romero ordered businesses like gyms and nightclubs closed in mid-March — weeks before Ducey acted.
Will Humble, a former director of Arizona’s Department of Health, noted to TPM that the stay-at-home order prevented cities from acting, but that its removal could create a patchwork of regulations that only exist in areas with outbreaks.
When Ducey lifted the stay-at-home order on May 15, the restriction stayed in place — limiting municipalities to enacting rules that did not go beyond state-level policy.
“The stay-at-home order affected all jurisdictions, and that stay-at-home order said that cities can’t do anything over and beyond what was in the order,” Humble said, adding that additional steps like limiting capacity at nightclubs or crowds remain beyond municipal reach.
Texas had a similar tack, albeit one that was slightly more narrow.
Governor Abbott initially allowed localities to enforce penalties on not wearing masks, before stripping them of that authority in an April 27 executive order that also specified the terms under which businesses in the state could reopen.
That order said that “no jurisdiction can impose a civil or criminal penalty for failure to wear a face covering.”
This week, a bipartisan group of mayors sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott (R) demanding that he allow them to set up and enforce local regulations on mask-wearing in public.
“If you do not have plans to mandate face coverings statewide, we ask that you restore the ability for local authorities to enforce the wearing of face coverings in public venues where physical distancing cannot be practiced,” read the missive.
But an elected San Antonio judge in the Bexar County district court found a way out. The judge, a Democrat, reportedly issued an order on Wednesday that played on a loophole in Abbott’s order, which only banned local regulations as they pertained to fines for individual people.
The Bexar County judge’s order fines local businesses $1,000 if they don’t require employees and visitors to wear face masks when less than six feet apart.
Abbott expressed a mixture of relief and gloating at the judge’s move in a Wednesday radio interview, saying “there has been a plan in place all along that all that was needed was for local officials to actually read the plan that was issued by the state of Texas.”
“It turned out earlier today that the county judge in Bexar County finally figured that out,” he added, before going on to endorse and claim credit for the judge’s order by saying that “just like they can require people to wear shoes and shirts, these businesses can require people to wear face masks if they come into their businesses. Now, local officials are just now realizing that that was authorized.”
A Dallas county judge said the city would implement the same order.
Gerald argued that the region was a victim of its own success in issuing stay-at-home orders early on that kept the virus at bay, but did not extinguish it.
“People looked around and said, ‘what happened, why did we make all this sacrifice?’ The hospitals weren’t crowded, people aren’t dying,” he said. “That success has bred the failure we’re in now.”