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As coronavirus devastates Lubbock, local leaders ask for more control

Sarah Self-Walbrick/Texas Tech Public Media

Cherie Rose tried to go to a local craft store this past weekend. She thought she could quickly run in for a few things while she was taking care of other errands.

“As we turned the corner, the parking lot was just packed,” she said.

People were parked in the street, which is unusual in Lubbock. She didn’t stop at the store and kept driving.

“You would’ve thought it was a Black Friday. There were so many cars," Rose said. "This is ridiculous. How can we be having so many COVID problems and the people are packing the stores like this?”

Rose isn’t the only Lubbock citizen thinking this. Concerned commenters have flooded social media about specific businesses they don't think are following occupancy and masking rules.

As citizens ask for more, or at least better enforced, COVID-19 precaution measures, local leaders say they're doing what they can and would like more flexibility from the state to impose additional measures. That doesn’t seem to be coming.

What Lubbock is doing

Because of Lubbock’s high hospitalization rate, restaurants and non-essential retail stores should be operating at 50% capacity. The statewide mask mandate is still in effect, punishable first by a warning and then a fine after a second offense. Most outdoor gatherings of more than 10 are prohibited. Indoor gatherings are less restricted, though large or disruptive events can face repercussions.

The Lubbock Police Department fields calls about businesses and people not following the state-mandated rules.

Police Public Information Officer Allison Matherly said the number of those calls has decreased. At the beginning of the pandemic, they could get 20 to 30 complaints a day. Now it’s more like a handful a week.

When the department receives a call, they send an officer to check on things. Matherly said they prioritize voluntary compliance. Larger house parties have led to some tickets.

Lubbock Mayor Dan Pope said smaller get-togethers are proving to be a contributing source to the city's unchecked spread.

“Most of the spread is birthday parties. It’s wedding showers. It’s small gatherings," the mayor said. "We had nine teachers in one elementary school test positive because they went to a 50th birthday party.” 

This week, the mayor announced large city-owned event centers and athletic facilities will close through the end of the year. City leadership is also meeting with big-box and grocery stores to ask for voluntary occupancy limits. Under state guidelines, these businesses are considered essential and are currently not under the 50% capacity occupancy limits.

The Lubbock City Council will meet on Monday to look at the city’s “COVID-19 status, responses, fiscal impact and measures,” according to the council agenda. Other cities in West Texas -- hard-hit by the surge in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and death --  have had similar talks this week.

As hospitals neared capacity--a sad milestone the two health systems in Lubbock hit this week--the Lubbock County Medical Society sent a letter to city officials pleading for stronger enforcement of gathering, masking and social distancing standards.

President of the society, Dr. Ashley Sturgeon, said she spoke with Pope about the requests proposed in the letter. She said he explained the city’s efforts. She thinks they’re doing what they can and that there’s more work happening behind the scenes than people realize.

“I think that he’s in a delicate position, like all politicians are. They sign up for that,” Sturgeon said. “But I think it’s hard to enforce a rule when there’s no obvious punishment for it. I do think the orders are vague regarding wearing your mask, social distancing and gatherings.”

What Lubbock would like to do

County Judge Curtis Parrish says officials are doing what they can to enforce statewide rules. But he said the protocols in place don’t allow them to do much. He gave an analogy.

“If you’re speeding or you’re not wearing your seatbelt, then the cops can pull you over and give you a ticket,” Parrish said. “There is no mechanism like that for this mask order or this large gathering order.”

Local-level leaders across Texas have voiced similar frustrations. The El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego tried to issue a county-wide shut down because he felt the state mandates weren’t doing enough for the virus-ravaged community. Texas courts said he couldn’t do that.

El Paso is just one example. Parrish said communities should be able to better address local problems. If he was able to, Parrish said he would work to identify what’s truly driving Lubbock County’s coronavirus surge and address specific problems rather than a full lockdown of the city.

“I would like to see the governor’s office turn over some of the management of this disaster back to the local authorities,” he said. “I think we know what’s best and how best to handle this.”

But at a news conference in Lubbock Thursday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said that is unlikely to happen. He wants local officials to enforce what’s already on the books.

“Some local officials are not using the tools available to them to make sure they are taking every step they need,” Abbott said. “So just giving more tools won’t mean anything. Here’s the point - these measurable tools or metrics won’t matter if they’re not enforced.”

The tools Abbott is referring to are outlined in his most recent executive order. It allowed for further reopenings after the spring shutdown, as long as an area’s hospitalizations remain low. Lubbock has been considered a region with high hospitalizations for over a month now.

When asked by Texas Tech Public Media to give an example of a community using the “tools” well, Abbott couldn’t pinpoint one.

Parrish said Abbott has made one thing clear -- he wants to manage the pandemic from Austin.

“One of the issues I’ve had with the governor from the beginning is that one size doesn’t fit all,” Parrish said. “What’s good for Harris County, what’s good for Dallas County, isn’t necessarily what’s good for Lubbock County.”

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said the blanket approach to reducing coronavirus spread in Texas goes against the decentralized political system.

“Allowing for local control just makes more sense,” Rottinghaus said. “The resources are there and it’s available for those officials to be on the ground, talking with people, and really trying to stop the spread of the virus.”

Rottinghaus noted that at the beginning of the pandemic, local governments had more power. He thinks the state-level leaders were worried about the economic impacts of restrictive municipal shutdowns. So they created orders that superseded local ones.

Now, local officials have to make those work.

“The best the counties can do is to engage in dogged enforcement of capacity limits and mask mandates,” Rottinghaus said, “and just good, old-fashioned moral persuasion that people should do the right thing and protect each other.”

Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.

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