If there’s one thing we learned from Thursday evening’s “Reopening Texas” virtual town hall on ABC13, it’s that even those who control the levers of power in the state’s political, business and media worlds still have to deal with the awkwardness of remote video conferencing, just like us everyday Texans stuck working from home during the pandemic.
The picture quality ebbed and flowed. Speakers who were unsure of when to chime in talked over one another. The host’s video feed cut out at one point presumably due to technical difficulties, and based on a not so infrequent dinging in the background, someone clearly forgot to put their iPhone on silent. Stars — they’re just like us!
Nevertheless, the hour-plus discussion hosted by veteran ABC13 anchor Tom Abrahams covered plenty of relevant ground and helped illustrate the priorities of the nine influential Texans who digitally convened to wax poetic on the state’s reopening thus far and what steps should be taken next to fight COVID-19.
The town hall included Republican politicians Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Congressman Dan Crenshaw of Houston, as well as state Democrats Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, Fort Bend County Judge KP George and Texas House Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio. Emily Knight, CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association and Laura Murillo, president of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, spoke on behalf of business interests in the state.
Marvin Odum, the former Shell CEO and current COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Czar for the City of Houston represented City Hall’s perspective, and Dr. Umair Shah, the Harris County Public Health executive director, rounded out the group as the only public health official in attendance.
Abbott was the most powerful person on the call, but had the least screen time since he had to dip out “to be on an important conference call” after six minutes or so, according to Abrahams. Abbott kicked things off by talking about his newly-minted public face mask mandate for the vast majority of Texans — anyone living in a county with 20 or more COVID-19 cases, to be exact — and explained his rationale for finally making the type of order that local officials across the state had been begging him to issue since COVID-19 cases began to spike in the past several weeks.
“Understanding the data and working with doctors, we’ve learned that the best way that we can both remain open for business while also containing the spread of COVID-19 is through the strategy of requiring masks that will slow the spread,” Abbott said.
When Abrahams asked why Abbott didn’t issue the mask order sooner, Abbott didn’t reference a hesitance to infringe upon the liberties of freedom-loving Texans, a common talking point he and other state Republicans used when they criticized earlier broad mask mandates like the one Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo tried to issue in late April.
He instead claimed that the crisis just wasn’t bad enough in enough parts of Texas back in May to make such a drastic move, citing the low statewide COVID-19 testing positivity rate of 4.27 percent near the end of that month. “Now we’re taking an action that’s broader-based because we have hotspots not just in the large urban areas. There are about 90 counties, actually more than 90 counties, that have set all-time records in just the past two days,” Abbott said.
Before heading to his conference call, Abbott got in a few quick hits about the rationale for not extending his mask order to polling places — “We don’t want to deny somebody the ability to go vote simply because they don’t have a mask,” he said, before admitting that the safest way to vote was while wearing a mask — and about his strategy for helping plan for the upcoming school year.
“We’re focusing on two things,” Abbott said, which are the safety of students, teachers, parents and school staff, and flexibility, which he explained meant that while he hoped schools could start on time and in-person as scheduled, he wants educators to prioritize developing online-delivery strategies, just in case.
“If we continue to see COVID spreading the way that it is right now, it may be necessary to employ that flexibility and use online learning,” Abbott said.
Thursday's town hall was hosted by ABC13's Tom Abrahams via Zoom. The televised discussion brought leaders from the Texas political, business and public health worlds together to discuss statewide reopening efforts and discuss their priorities for fighting COVID-19.
When asked about Abbott’s new mask order, Congressman Crenshaw said he supported his fellow Republican’s decision and contrasted its relatively light penalties — first a warning, followed by a maximum fine of $250 — with the allegedly “way over the top and draconian” mask mandate from County Judge Hidalgo back in April that would have had a $1,000 penalty attached if Abbott hadn’t overruled her.
“Obviously I have no problem with encouraging people to wear masks,” Crenshaw said, before touting that his office had distributed thousands of masks in his Houston district. “People need to understand oftentimes it’s not that this gets political, it’s that people have different opinions, and people do want to be trusted with their freedom to engage in risk as they see fit.”
Crenshaw then argued that “more targeted measures” like Abbott’s mask order were preferable to “the costliest possible measures,” a.k.a. widespread lockdowns, that were implemented earlier in the crisis across much of the developed world, as they would allow the economy to stay up and running.
Later in the town hall, the Democrats made their own case for “targeted measures,” but instead of following Crenshaw’s reasoning, they made the case that Abbott should restore local authority to city and county government officials so that they could use their local expertise to implement more effective interventions specifically tailored for their communities.
“Local government authorities understand their community better than anybody else,” said Fort Bend County Judge George.
Harris County Commissioner Ellis spoke proudly of the “tough decisions” that paid dividends in slowing the spread of coronavirus made by local officials in Austin to cancel the South by Southwest festival and in Houston to shut down the rodeo. “That was bold,” Ellis said. “And a lot of people thought they’d lost their minds.”
“We can handle it with laser precision, and not with a sledgehammer,” said Texas Rep. Martinez Fischer, before urging that “we need to trust our local officials” to make the right policy decisions for their cities and counties. “The only time I’ve ever seen the curve get flattened in our state is when our local leaders were in control,” he said.
Ever the businessman, Marvin Odum didn’t rock the boat at any point and instead focused on a non-partisan call for “individual responsibility” while attempting to rally Texans to commit to wearing face masks, washing their hands and practicing social distancing. He also advocated for an approach to crisis management that asks “what improves the condition of the city in the longer term?” One specific issue in that vein he addressed was the need to invest in “digital equity” to make sure that things like remote work, online education and telemedicine are available to as many Texans as possible, during the pandemic and beyond.
Both Knight of the Texas Restaurant Association and Murillo of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce focused much of their attention on calling for widely expanded COVID-19 testing and increased funding for contact tracing efforts, which would allow businesses to more rapidly identify and isolate employees who may test positive and those they’ve come in contact with toward the end of keeping the state open for business while also minimizing the spread of coronavirus.
Knight also stressed the disproportional impact that COVID-19 has had on service workers in the restaurant business, many of whom are people of color. “We can’t afford to lose this sector,” Knight said, “Forty-seven percent of our workforce are minorities, and we need to get them back to work.”
“In the Houston region, 42 percent of all small businesses are Hispanic,” Murillo said, raising a similar concern. “As go Hispanics, so goes Houston,” she argued.
Ellis also made sure to highlight the way that the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities throughout Texas and the country as a whole, especially among low-income workers providing essential duties amid the crisis, and called on politicians to keep workers front and center in their thinking when talking about the pros and cons of opening the economy.
“You had a lot of people who were at the back of the bus before COVID-19 showed up,” Ellis said.
Crenshaw made clear that he “fundamentally” disagreed with those who think Texas reopened too soon, and claimed it was immoral for public officials to prioritize slowing the spread of COVID-19 more heavily than keeping businesses open. “Trying to second guess each other on reopening, and that notion that you’re putting people at risk by letting them live their lives and make money for themselves and provide for their families, there’s a big civics problem there,” Crenshaw said.
Dr. Umair Shah said that the state’s economic reopening “happened faster than I would have liked,” and that he considered Abbott’s recent mask mandate a step in the right direction. In order to prevent even more dramatic sickness, pain and suffering, Shah said that all Texans will need to work together by committing to public health measures like wearing face masks in public and practicing social distancing in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 before it’s too late.
He believes that will only be possible if state leaders like those assembled for Thursday’s town hall approach the crisis with a clear, unified message that the health and well-being of Texans is their top priority in all that they do.
“We have to do everything we can to support that fight together,” Shah said, “and really, ultimately, make sure our communities understand that we’re fighting on their behalf.”