AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The surge of new COVID-19 cases that led Gov. Greg Abbott to put a statewide mask order in place also has state leaders defending the response to the virus.

“We have had a very dynamic response to this,” said Texas Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd. As an example, he pointed to the expansion of testing for the virus in Texas.

“Not that long ago, there was one lab in the nation that was capable of returning a COVID-19 test. Now we’re at over 960 sites that you can give a specimen and hundreds of labs that are doing COVID-19 tests,” Kidd said.

Chief Kidd listed off what he called “milestone events” in May and June that contributed to the spike in cases. “We had graduations. We had Memorial Day. We had Mother’s Day. We had protests out there. We had a lot of different things where people came together and didn’t follow the instructions of the doctors.”

Kidd believes more Texans need to get the message that they need to take steps like wearing masks to slow the spread of the virus.

“Remember when we had to put out the ‘click it or ticket” in order to get people to wear seatbelts,” Kidd said, referencing a highway safety campaign. “Now should we look at ‘mask it or casket?” Kidd said, citing a meme he saw online.

Texas lawmakers, sidelined throughout Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic response, believe they should be included in the state’s effort to fight COVID-19.

“These powers that you are using, we granted them to you but we never gave up our own power, and our own desire, and our own ability to represent our constituents and to honor our duty to our state,” said State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, (D-San Antonio).

The governor of Texas can suspend rules, not laws, during a disaster declaration. The state legislature can end a disaster declaration at any time, whether or not it is in session and is the only state entity permitted to suspend laws under the Texas Constitution.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 8,076 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, a record since the pandemic began.

In a letter sent to Abbott on Tuesday, Martinez Fischer said, “It becomes harder to deny the truth: you took a gamble on our state’s response strategy, and Texas lost.”

“Most people think that we have to be brought in to a special session to govern,” said Martinez Fischer, a self-described policy wonk. “When I read that law, it is very clear that it is the intent of the legislature to have a say any time during an emergency or a pandemic.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Abbott has faced pressure from Democrats demanding strict orders to slow the spread of the virus. He faced friendly fire from conservatives who wanted the governor to reopen the economy more quickly.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Fox News’ Laura Ingram that shutting down the economy again is the “last thing” he or Abbott want to do. He criticized Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease official, for expressing concerns about rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Texas.

On April 27, Abbott announced Phase 1 of his plan to reopen the state economy, when the 7-day average of daily new COVID-19 cases was 834. On July 1, that metric was 6,020.

“We’ll listen to a lot of science, we’ll listen to a lot of doctors, and Gov. Abbott, myself and other state leaders will make the decision,” Patrick said. “No, thank you, Dr. Fauci.”

Abbott changed his own order under pressure from Republicans when a Dallas salon owner, Shelly Luther, was jailed for unlawfully opening her doors during his stay at home order. Before Thursday’s order, he resisted calls for a statewide mask mandate from Democrats and grappled with local leaders over public health orders.

Abbott paused the state’s reopening plan and closed bars last week, acknowledging later that bars may have been allowed to reopen too soon. But he still maintains that shutting down the state again would be a last resort.

Bracing for a new surge of unemployment claims

Sonya Wilson thought she had set her employees up for success to file unemployment claims as the pandemic forced her to furlough her staff at an Austin-area canine daycare, but she quickly discovered setbacks in the Texas Workforce Commission system.

“It was supposed to be so easy, all they had to do was just go in and fill out their claim and start collecting their money, and out of nine employees, I had one that was able to do that,” Wilson said.

“I did everything that I was supposed to do as far as the TWC instructed me to set everybody up for a mass layoff.”

Wilson, who has run her small business for nearly two decades in south Austin, has spent dozens of hours over three months attempting to get a hold of a person at the Texas Workforce Commission to help.

“Thirty hours a week we were spending, calling the number trying to get all of our employees on set up for unemployment,” she explained.

“They were not ready to answer the questions that people have, that couldn’t be answered on their website,” she said. “We got into the circle of call the number, get the prompt, the phone number hangs up on you, call again.”

With rent due for many people on the first of each month, Wilson has had sleepless nights worrying that her employees would not have the means to make critical payments.

“Rent is due today,” the small business owner said in a Wednesday interview. “It’s not helpful to our mental health, but the health of my employees to wonder whether they’re going to be able to pay rent or whether they’re going to get evicted, whether they’re going to get where their meals are going to come from.”

On Wednesday, the state’s high unemployment rates triggered additional weeks of extended benefits for claimants, which adds up to more than a year — a total of 59 weeks— of unemployment benefits for some Texans.

This week, the TWC announced it would delay work search requirements with resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Texas.

Those requirements had been waived as the pandemic began, but were then reinstated by TWC only to be pulled again this week. Agency leadership will announce in late July whether those work search requirements to retain unemployment benefits will remain through the summer or be wiped.

“We know that you’re out there, we know that you are desperately needing to speak to somebody,” TWC Executive Director Ed Serna said in a Wednesday interview.

For Texans who had already been receiving unemployment benefits, then went back to work when Texas began to reopen, and were furloughed again during the state’s reopening rollback, Serna said the process for new benefits to kick in is shorter.

“From the last time you requested a payment from us, if you went more than three weeks, then you have to file an additional claim,” he said. “Just check out it’s a little drop down menu, check off laid off, don’t check off disaster, don’t check off anything else, just check off laid off.

“That’ll trigger for us that you were affected by what recently happened, and you will be handled in a priority fashion,” he explained. “Because you’re already in our system, we don’t have to go through all that validation that we went through before.”

“For those of y’all that were recently laid off, and it was within three weeks of when you last requested a payment from us, get in there and request your payment again, because you’re already still active, you’re still in the cycle,” he said.

Serna said between 1,800 and 2,000 TWC and contract workers are answering telephone queries, and the average wait time is 18 minutes, which is down from 26 minutes in April and 19 minutes in May.

TWC has also implemented an out-bound calling system to reach Texans for clarifications on claims.

“We went from being an agency that just took calls into being an agency that calls folks out,” he said, adding that TWC is “probably not going to go away from that practice,” as he expects it to be a permanent change and not just a change during the pandemic.

TWC has also made upgrades to its chatbot, which can now handle more than 100 questions.

Wilson said the TWC finally wrapped up the unemployment process for all of her employees over the weekend, after more than three months.

“We needed TWC to help us, and they have done a lot, but they haven’t done nearly as much as necessary,” Wilson said.

TWC has received more than three million unemployment claims, is paying benefits to 2.6 million Texans and has paid out over $16 billion in benefits — with $4 billion of that coming from the state and the remaining $12 billion coming from the federal government.

“You can still email me… and let me know if you’ve really been struggling to get to us,” Serna said.

Candidates lay out differences for voters

Before they face off in the Democratic runoff election July 14, the two candidates vying for Travis County District Attorney discussed criminal justice issues during a live online conversation.

Incumbent Margaret Moore came in a close second to challenger José Garza in the Democratic primary in March. Garza received 44% of the vote (80,621 votes) to Moore’s 41% (74,796). Because neither received 50% of the vote in the primary, they’re headed to a runoff election.

The Travis County District Attorney is in charge of prosecuting felonies within the county.

Moore has been the Travis County District Attorney since 2016. She’s running on her experience in the courtroom and her decades served in public office in Travis County — first as the Juvenile Public Defender, then assistant district attorney, then County Attorney and then as a County Commissioner.

“I also started diversion in Travis County. We pioneered ways to divert people out of the criminal justice system and find alternatives to prosecution for low-level crimes,” Moore said.

Garza argued it’s time for a change.

“Our criminal justice system is broken,” he said, explaining that it’s time to “re-imagine” the job of a prosecutor.

He’s the executive director of the Worker’s Defense Project. He claims Moore goes too far in going after drug charges and aims to end the cash bail system that he feels unfairly targets people of color.

“Members of our community, especially people of color, are hurt or killed every single year at the hands of law enforcement officers,” Garza said.

He asserted that while around 9% of the population is Black, close to 25% of the jail population is Black, adding, “it doesn’t have to be this way.”

“Law enforcement officers who commit harm against our community are not being held accountable,” Garza said.

Moore disagreed, reminding voters she helped create the office’s first Civil Rights Unit, “to promote transparency and fairness for cases involving the unlawful use of force by police officers. She said that division had reviewed 102 cases.

“In 13 years before I took office, one indictment was returned and no cases were tried,” Moore said. “We have now had two jury trials, 21 indictments, against eight different individuals — a peace officer or a public safety official.”

She said she wants her office to be fair, thorough and transparent, and said the office’s policy regarding releasing video related to a case reflects that. She noted that a thorough investigation often takes time.

“Yes, I’d love for these cases to be handled much more quickly, but I also know what it takes to do them right,” she said.

If elected, Garza said he plans to make several changes in the handling of officer-involved cases:

  • If they have not taken a case to a Grand Jury, he pledges to issue a statement within 30 days, and then update that statement every 14 days.
  • He pledges to publish a public list of law enforcement officers who have engaged in misconduct, like a history of failing to turn on their body cameras.
  • He said the community has a right see body camera footage of officer-involved incidents “as soon as possible.”
  • He pledged to never accept a campaign contribution from a police organization.

While Moore confirmed she had accepted campaign contribution from police organizations, she said, “the idea that she can be bought is absolutely absurd.”

She argued that several Texas lawmakers, Mayor Steve Adler and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt would agree.

“He’s taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from people we don’t even know because they are PACs organized out-of-state,” Moore said. “I think the DA of Travis County should be for the county, but not national movements that may not be good for Travis County”

She went on, “So, lets don’t go there, I don’t think he [Garza] can be bought and I know I can’t be bought. Let’s talk about instead what’s important, about a Civil Rights Division that fits this county.”

Garza said Moore’s office brings more drug charges than any other kind of offense.

He said “the data was clear” when it comes to the racial disparities in how drug offenses are treated in the county. He argued that while drug use was consistent across all races, arrests and conviction rates were higher among people of color.

He pledged to end the prosecution of low-level drug offenses.

Meanwhile, Moore said she called for a study on the disparities.

“The numbers did not support the assertion that minorities are treated differently in the criminal justice system: whether they got bond, whether they got a dismissal, whether they got a diversion.”

She said “race was not a factor,” but what they found to be factor was whether a person had retained or appoint an attorney. She emphasized the importance of the Public Defender’s Office for this reason.

Moore also noted that her office does not prosecute marijuana cases at the federal level.

“Our biggest problems are methamphetamine, crack, cocaine and heroine,” she said.

She went on, “What we are down to in Travis County is a very naughty problem. It’s not easily solved, and it’s certainly not solved by saying you are going to stop enforcing the law, in my opinion.”

She said they are still trying to work on a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD) to keep low-level drug offenders from ever making it to booking and into the system. She estimated this program could be up-and-running by the end of the year.

But Garza said, “We don’t need a study to tell us that different people get treated differently in the criminal justice system.”

He argued that every day a person struggling with substance abuse disorder stays in jail, the likelihood they will commit another crime goes up, and he said that wastes resources and makes our community “less safe.”

COVID-19 impact on elections

Curbside voting is not new to the Texas Election Code, but more voters may opt in to the drive-by method of casting ballots, as well as other alternative approaches to voting, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Texas Election Code states, “If a voter is physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health, on the voter’s request, an election officer shall deliver a ballot to the voter at the polling place entrance or curb.”

Voters who plan to go alone to vote curbside are encouraged to call ahead to county election officials so they can prepare the necessary materials to bring to the curb, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s website.

“If a voter feels like they are symptomatic or may have been exposed to a person with COVID-19, we encourage them to utilize curbside voting,” the state’s director of elections, Keith Ingram, said. “Curbside voting allows a person to vote from their car and it’s available at all polling locations in the state of Texas for every election.”

Every polling place in the state must have curbside voting available “for those persons who feel like they may injure their health if they enter the polling place,” he said.

“It’s been the law in Texas for a long time,” Ingram said.

“Curbside voting has been used for a while, but it’s not used en masse,” Potter County Elections Administrator Melynn Huntley said. “In truth, elections are not set up to be drive thru, that’s sort of what this is, so it’s a little bit slower process.”

Representatives from the Texas Secretary of State’s elections division have been in regular contact with county elections administrators to discuss ways to safely conduct elections as the pandemic continues.

“Election officials across the state are taking precautions to make sure that both poll workers and voters are safe from each other during the voting process,” Ingram said.

As much of the state closes down once again because of COVID-19, polling locations are opening up for local elections, but for some counties, finding polling workers hasn’t been easy.

“Days after the March primary we would get phone calls from people that were scheduled already to work in May and they were dropping off,” said Doug Ferguson. “They were saying ‘No, we are not going to do that.’”

COVID-19 has left many voters and polling workers uneasy. Burnet County Elections Administrator Doug Ferguson says the current election was difficult to staff, but they got it done.

“It has been the weirdest year I have ever lived,” Ferguson said. “Especially in the elections career.”

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the state, Ferguson is now eyeing November’s election and the possible issues they could face with staffing.

“Every time we get to talk to one we are making notes and we are asking them, ‘Are you still interested in working in November?’” Ferguson said. “So we are starting to make notes on our list of poll workers.”

Safety is one of the biggest concerns. Burnet Mayor Crista Bromley hopes her citizens follow the CDC guidelines for the sake of those working and those voting.

“Of course it is so important to get out and vote, but to take care of yourself and others is, too, and you do that by adhering to the social distancing and wearing of the masks,” Bromley said.

An advisory from the state encouraged voters to wear masks at polling locations, and bring their own hand sanitizer, among other health protocols.

Texas counties have access to more than $27.4 million in federal funding to pay for resources they might need.

Voters with additional questions about curbside voting can find information on the Texas Secretary of State’s election website, or by inquiring with local election officials.