(CN) — Congressional Democrats from Texas on Wednesday urged the state’s Republican governor to give local officials the flexibility to issue stay-at-home orders, citing the coronavirus pandemic’s growing toll on the South Texas border area in particular and its disproportionate impact on Latino communities.
“Folks in my district are dying at two and a half times the rate of people across the state of Texas,” said Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, whose district stretches from the San Antonio area down to the border city of McAllen.
Gonzalez and other Democrats from Houston, El Paso and San Antonio spoke during a brief outdoor press conference in Washington that was cut short by gusty winds as storm clouds gathered over the U.S. Capitol building.
Governor Greg Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Democrats’ plea.
In South Texas, a surge in Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths has prompted a response from the U.S. Navy, which deployed medical teams to the region over the weekend in an effort to help out local hospitals. Refrigerated trucks are being used to store bodies outside local hospitals and funeral homes, according to reporting from the Texas Tribune, a troubling echo of New York City’s experience just a few months ago.
Parts of the Rio Grande Valley have seen an 80% increase in cumulative Covid-19 deaths over the past week, according to data from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, also known as UTHealth. That’s compared to a statewide increase of about 25% from a week ago, UTHealth reported on Wednesday.
Statewide, Covid-19 hospitalizations and the daily number of new deaths both increased on Tuesday, but that increase came after a couple days of declines in both data points.
Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease expert at UTHealth, said in an interview that while there is some reason to be hopeful about the situation at the statewide level, the future is still far from certain.
“It looks like it’s levelling off, and the question is, is the mask mandate working?” Troisi said, citing a rule enacted by Abbott about three weeks ago.
“I don’t think it’s been long enough to tell, because [with] the hospitalizations, usually it’s three to four weeks after exposure to the virus,” she said. “So it just hasn’t been enough time really to tell what’s happening.”
In South Texas, the spread of the virus has prompted at least one local official to buck the governor on pandemic-related restrictions, a source of local-versus-state tension since the pandemic began.
On Wednesday, a “shelter-at-home” order took effect in Hidalgo County, despite such measures being generally blocked by the governor in the past. Local officials in the state’s major cities have previously begged Abbott for the authority to implement stay-at-home orders.
Still, Abbott on Tuesday signaled little direct resistance to the Hidalgo County order in an interview after a virtual meeting with South Texas officials, in which the officials discussed the region’s “ongoing needs,” according to a press release from the governor’s office.
“There are parts of their orders which they have the complete latitude to enforce, such as the curfew — that is the authority that local county judges always have, including right now,” Abbott said during an interview with TV station KRGV, referencing the Hidalgo County order and less restrictive measures enacted in neighboring Cameron County.
“They are basically working to enforce the strategies that I have articulated in my executive orders,” the governor said.
Officials in other parts of Texas – including in Harris County, the state’s largest county that is home to Houston – have nonetheless been hesitant to issue stay-at-home orders without the governor’s explicit blessing.
“I’ve been telling my community, stay home… I’m hoping that’ll do something, but I still need that ability to issue a stay-at-home order from the governor, for him to do it and I’ve been pleading with him on that,” Harris County, Texas Judge Lina Hidalgo says. pic.twitter.com/ZteEjEuXVj
— The Situation Room (@CNNSitRoom) July 16, 2020
“We appreciate the governor going down and bringing resources [to South Texas] the last few days, and hopefully much more to come,” Congressman Gonzalez said during the Wednesday press conference. “But there’s only one way to really corral this virus, and that is to shut regions of the state down.”
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