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Coronavirus in Texas

Former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt says Abbott's actions to reopen Texas are divisive, scary and confusing

Abbott's recent decisions to reopen the economy despite rising infection rates signal that something has "spooked" the governor, Eckhardt said at a Tribune event.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt speaks at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 29, 2018.

Former Travis County Judge and Senate District 14 candidate Sarah Eckhardt said she questions why Gov. Greg Abbott seemingly shifted from a measured and inclusive plan for Texas' reopening to one that's more aggressive and risky.

“Early on, the governor made statements that looked like we were going to have an all-hands-on-deck kind of response, that we would transcend partisanship to do what needed to get done," said Eckhardt, a Democrat, in a live interview Wednesday with The Texas Tribune. "But recently, something has spooked the governor. And he’s begun making statements and taking actions that are, that divide us. They’re confusing and they’re scaring us.”

Eckhardt said there is reason to be afraid, citing increased infection rates and the pace at which the infection rate is doubling. She said that at this pace, the number of COVID-19 cases “will overrun our hospital capacity if we don’t continue to flatten our curve.”

Abbott, a Republican, has pointed to the continued availability of hospital beds and gradual decline of tests coming back positive as justification for reopening the economy and putting Texans back to work. But last week, the state set new daily records for most cases and deaths. And testing across the state, though expanding, continues to miss the benchmark of 30,000 tests per day.

It’s important to balance both health and economic recoveries, Eckhardt said. And if she were in Abbott’s position, Eckhardt said, she’d rely on the same metrics. Her conclusions, however, would be different, she said.

“The conclusions to be drawn from those facts really aren’t up for debate,” Eckhardt said. “We need to make sure that the policies that we are putting forward as leaders do match the facts on the ground.”

Eckhardt was elected as Travis County’s first female judge in 2015. She resigned from her position to run for the state Legislature, but because of the novel coronavirus, she pushed back her resignation date to help navigate the county through the pandemic. She is now assisting interim Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. Her last official day in office was May 12.

Leaving her post in county leadership, Eckhardt plans to bring facets of Travis County's emergency responses to the state level, she said.

"The state response with regard to our health and economic recovery is absolutely crucial," Eckhardt said. "I am not worried about our local response. I feel very confident in our team."

Eckhardt announced her Senate campaign in March and is one of six candidates running in a special election to replace former Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who announced his retirement in February. His term was scheduled to end in 2023. Watson's last day in office was April 30. Eckhardt will face off against Democrat State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez; Republicans Don Zimmerman, a former Austin City Council member, and Waller Thomas Burns II; Pat Dixon, a Libertarian; and Jeff Ridgeway, an independent. The seat has historically been held by a Democrat.

Eckhardt's resignation sparked criticism for her decision to leave her position during a pandemic. But Eckhardt refuted that criticism, pointing to Travis County's "seasoned" emergency response team and her deep-seated commitment to the county.

"I may be changing my hat, but I'm not going anywhere," Eckhardt said. "I will do this kind of work with or without title, and I will do this kind of work with or without pay."

The special election, which was supposed to be in May, has been postponed until July 14. Eckhardt supports expanded vote-by-mail protections for voters, she said.

“I am very concerned about voter participation in this race,” Eckhardt said. “Even before COVID-19, we have been concerned with a growing movement to disenfranchise people and to scare them away from the polls.”

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