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The 2020 Texas Tribune Festival

Dallas and Harris county judges criticize Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus response for putting politics ahead of science

At The Texas Tribune Festival, Clay Jenkins and Lina Hidalgo, both Democrats, said local officials and health experts stepped into a leadership vacuum left by state and federal leaders.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

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Judges from two of the state’s most populous counties criticized Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as politicized and lagging in a conversation during The Texas Tribune Festival that aired Friday.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Texas leaders are “weak” and “could not stand up to” President Donald Trump, who has called the virus a “hoax.”

“Look, some of us decided to follow science and are still doing it. We’re not making decisions based on what we think is politically expedient,” Jenkins said.

He added later, “When I worked with Gov. [Rick] Perry — he’s a Republican, I’m a Democrat — it was never political. I think this administration just cannot stand up to President Trump, and it’s led to some pretty disastrous results.”

The difference between this pandemic and previous disasters, Jenkins said, was Trump — who “made everything about it” partisan and personalized to him.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo of Harris County, which includes Houston, said there was “a lot of pressure to make things political, and I do think, you know, some folks caved to that and that's just really sad.”

The “fatal flaw” was Abbott removing local officials’ ability to impose tighter restrictions to stall the spread of the virus, she said.

Spokespeople for Abbott and Trump did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Abbott’s waffling on requiring people to wear face coverings drew particular ire from the Democratic judges at the TribFest panel.

The governor issued a statewide mask mandate in July after resisting calls to do so sooner. At one point, he prohibited local governments from penalizing people who did not wear masks — before turning around to praise a county judge who ordered businesses to require that their employees and customers don face coverings when social distancing wasn’t possible.

Abbott said in a television interview at the time that the judge had “finally figured” out that course of action was allowed under his directives. Far-right activists characterized the order as an infringement of their freedom, while local officials criticized Abbott for giving obtuse directions during a health crisis.

Health experts say masks help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Daily new infections — which began increasing a few weeks after the governor let businesses begin reopening in May — started to decline not long after Abbott imposed the mask mandate. Nearly 3,900 new infections were reported Thursday — not including people who tested positive using rapid-result tests — and at least 13,091 Texans have died with the virus.

“The reality of it was that the governor at first didn’t want masks to be enforced and then changed his mind with the overwhelming pressure of the medical community, and tried to spin it as if we had the authority to do it all along but were just too slow to figure out his riddle,” Jenkins said. “It’s just been very confusing leadership and a real lack of communication from the state. But we’ve banded together and the county judges and the medical community, and we’ve powered through it with a vacuum coming from Washington and Austin.”

Hidalgo said the mask order was the perfect example of the politicized response to the pandemic.

Had action been taken sooner, “how many lives, how much would the economy have done better? How much more sustainable would things be had we not reopened too soon [to pander] to certain interests? Perhaps, or surely, we would be where other communities are who stayed the course until they crushed the curve,” she said.

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