Since then, the declaration has been continuously renewed on a monthly basis.
Under the Texas Disaster Act in Chapter 418 of the Texas Government Code, this declaration served as the basis of the governor’s many executive orders related to the pandemic, including the first one he issued on March 19, 2020 ordering a lockdown of the state.
Abbott’s order prohibited social gatherings of more than 10 people, closed gyms and in-door dining at restaurants, locked out guests from visiting long-term care facilities, and closed schools.
Though it was not mentioned in the text of his first order, violations still carried the penalty of a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 180 days in jail — a punishment Abbott would later prohibit after such punishments actually occurred.
The types of orders Abbott has issued in accordance with the declaration have varied from restricting individuals to restricting the government as COVID-19 cases fluctuated in the state and amid primary challengers Abbott faced who criticized him for the lockdown measures.
Fluctuating COVID-19 Cases
When his first declaration was signed two years ago, Abbott cited “30 confirmed cases of COVID-19” in the state in addition to “50 Texans with pending tests.”
Today, the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) reports that there have been nearly 5.5 million cases of the virus in Texas and 85,000 COVID-19 fatalities.
The cases largely added up over four distinct waves in the state: first peaking in July 2020, second in January 2021, third in August 2021 with the Delta variant, and fourth in January 2022 with the Omicron variant.
The Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed,” which pushed for the rapid development and release of a COVID-19 vaccine, led to the widespread rollout of vaccinations under the Biden administration in early 2021 as the second wave was just beginning to decline.
Since then, DSHS reports that almost 20.5 million people have been vaccinated with 17.3 million people “fully vaccinated” and 6.4 million people receiving a booster dose.
Changing COVID-19 Executive Orders
After a month of “15 days to slow the spread” and Texas had seen no skyrocketing cases of the novel virus originating from Wuhan, China, Abbott slowly began to roll back his lockdown measures and “open Texas.”
On April 27, 2020, he issued an executive order laying out the “strategic plan to Open Texas,” in which the governor asserted, “Individuals are encouraged to wear appropriate face coverings, but no jurisdiction can impose a civil or criminal penalty for failure to wear a face covering.”
He walked that provision back in mid-June, though, when he announced that Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff had rightfully discovered a loophole in the order: local governments could not impose a mask mandate directly on individuals, but they could mandate businesses to require individuals to wear face coverings.
During an interview, Abbott reiterated, “We want to make sure that individual liberty is not infringed upon by government, and hence government cannot require individuals to wear masks.”
A few weeks later as cases in the state continued to rise, the governor ordered individuals to wear masks under the threat of fines of up to $1,000 per violation.
As Abbott weighed lockdown measures later in the year, he transitioned to the use of trigger orders where certain restrictions would apply only to hospital regions in the state that reach certain COVID-19 metrics.
In March 2021, when the second wave of cases was on a sharp decline amid the rapid distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, Abbott announced the end of his statewide mask mandate and most of his other restrictions. However, a trigger order to permit localities to enact restrictions based on hospitalization numbers was left in place.
Like Abbott’s previous orders from the early months of the pandemic that rolled back restrictions, his order in March 2021 also placed new restrictions on local governments that prohibited them from issuing mask mandates on both individuals and businesses.
In late July 2021 — just as the number of COVID-19 cases was beginning to rise again with the Delta variant and as Abbott faced a growing field of Republican challengers — Abbott issued another executive order putting an end to the remaining trigger order.
During the spring of 2021, state lawmakers met in the 87th Regular Legislative Session and had an opportunity to revise the underpinning law of Abbott’s disaster declaration and executive orders.
Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) offered legislation that would require greater legislative oversight for widespread disaster declarations that passed the Senate just one vote shy of unanimous.
But that legislation never saw the light of day in the House.
The lower chamber advanced different legislation from Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) that would have outlined a “Pandemic Disaster Act” to go beside the Disaster Act but specify government responses permitted to a disease.
Burrows’ legislation did not originally include any substantial new legislative checks on the executive, but some were added during the process.
After Burrows’ bill was approved by the House, Birdwell took the legislation in the Senate and substituted his alternative version, which the Senate approved again.
Burrows rejected the changes in the House and sent the legislation to a conference committee where the bill died.
Some smaller changes were made to the Disaster Act, but no substantial legislative checks were added.
Unless the governor calls a special session and places the item on the agenda, the next opportunity lawmakers will have to make any changes to the Disaster Act will be in Spring of 2023 during the 88th Legislative Session.
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.