San Marcos may challenge governor over COVID-19 restrictions

The process will start with a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott but has the potential to escalate to a legal battle with the state of Texas. (Ali Linan/Community Impact Newspaper)
The process will start with a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott but has the potential to escalate to a legal battle with the state of Texas. (Ali Linan/Community Impact Newspaper)

The process will start with a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott but has the potential to escalate to a legal battle with the state of Texas. (Ali Linan/Community Impact Newspaper)

During a Jan. 19 meeting, San Marcos' City Council weighed whether to follow the cities of El Paso and Austin in challenging an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott by enacting additional COVID-19 restrictions.

A discussion on the matter gained steam after the city's director of public safety, Chase Stapp, provided a grim update on recent COVID-19 data for Hays County.

"January is already shaping up or is already, at the county level at least, the deadliest month since we started tracking [COVID-19 deaths]," Stapp told council members.

According to Hays County data, a county resident has died for every three hospitalized between New Year's Eve and Jan. 19, with 36 deaths and 108 hospitalizations reported by Hays County.

On Jan. 19, active hospitalizations of county residents reached 49, which falls just short of doubling the high of 25 during the peak of last summer's COVID-19 surge in Hays County.

Despite Stapp's presentation, Place 4 Council Member Shane Scott and Place 5 Council Member Mark Gleason were opposed to additional restrictions.

Gleason described an ordinance as a foregone conclusion he would not support, despite being sympathetic, because of how the state has reacted to attempts by other cities to exceed the restrictions laid out in Abbott's executive orders.

In Austin and Travis County, an order to close restaurants in the days around New Year's Eve was cut short by the Texas Supreme Court two days before it was set to expire on Jan. 3. However, the order successfully imposed limits on businesses on New Years Eve, achieving some of what city and county officials set out to do.

In El Paso, an effort by a county judge to limit what businesses were deemed essential was struck down by an appeals court.

"I can't support it knowing we're just going to turn around and get sued," Gleason said.

Scott emphasized the impact of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout while also citing concerns over the impact to small businesses.

"I think we're heading in the right direction, and our businesses, small business especially, have been so destroyed," Scott told council members. "The ones who are surviving, I wouldn't want to throw any extra burdens on them as well."

An initial distribution of 300 vaccine doses was sent to the county last week, with nearly 2,000 more doses expected this week. Stapp said he hoped they would be replenished as soon as they are administered, but a day earlier County Judge Ruben Becerra noted issues with vaccine allotments.

"Our population is nearly 300,000; I'll approximate that we are at 300,000, and for all intents and purposes we have received no vaccines," Becerra said during a call with members of the media.

No legal challenges for now

In lieu of ordering new restrictions Jan. 19, a majority of City Council elected to first send a letter to Abbott requesting more be done to slow the pandemic's spread or to give power to local governments to do so.

Council members said they had low expectation for what a new letter would accomplish, but a majority said it would be worth a try.

Place 1 Council Member Max Baker and Mayor Jane Hughson said they sent letters to the governor last year about public health concerns, but Abbott never responded.

"I don't expect the governor will listen to us until we do something that provokes him," Baker said during the meeting.

Place 6 Council Member Melissa Derrick suggested reaching out to other nearby cities to build a united front.

At least four council members said they would support a local order, in spite of a potential legal showdown.

"It could be a city ordinance, or the mayor could issue an executive order," City Attorney Michael Cosentino said during the meeting. "The same challenges from the attorney general would be anticipated, regardless of which approach you take."

Baker, expressing a sense of urgency to his fellow council members, noted vaccines will not be the solution for a large part of the population for some time, while also making a case for more immediate action.

"It's a privilege to be on that list [of people eligible for the vaccine]. I'm nowhere near that list. None of the people that are working in these restaurants are on that list," Baker said. "We're talking about people, our essential workers, I'll remind everyone, that aren't getting the vaccine anytime soon, and we're just going to let them die, 11 a week, and the governor isn't going to do anything for us because he's trying to be pro-business."
By Warren Brown
Warren joined Community Impact at the beginning of 2020 as the editor of its New Braunfels paper and now reports the news in San Marcos, Buda and Kyle. Warren previously wrote for the Dallas Observer and Fort Worth Weekly and he brings a passion for truth and equality to his reporting.