Disaster declaration coming for Jefferson County

Published 11:53 am Friday, March 13, 2020

Judge Jeff Branick is going to sign a disaster declaration for Jefferson County today upon his return from a vacation that is being cut short due to increasing concerns over coronavirus.

The designation opens the county up to more funding options and creates avenues for the potential closures or postponements of large-scale events.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, during a noon Friday news conference, said 39 confirmed cases of COVID-19 are known across Texas.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“I am declaring a state disaster for all counties in the State of Texas,” Abbott said.

According to the Associated Press, Abbott isn’t making decisions on canceling public gatherings in response to the coronavirus outbreak, even as some local officials seek guidance and other U.S. governors urge bans on big crowds and school closures.

It is a stance that puts Abbott, a Republican, in contrast with governors in both parties who have called for curtailing events in similarly big states, including California and Florida. But Abbott has resisted publicly saying whether big events in Texas — like the South By Southwest Festival shelved last week — should go on, insisting that local health officials are better suited to make the call.

He continued to defer in private Wednesday on a call with mayors and county officials across Texas, some of whom sought direction. One was a small-town administrator in Bruceville-Eddy, a rural community of about 1,800 people, who asked whether to scrap a city council meeting that was likely to draw an older crowd.

“Without being able to be there, without knowing all the facts on the ground, I wouldn’t be able to tell you what is the right thing to do other than use your best instincts,” said Abbott, urging her to consult with local health officials.

Sonya Bishop, who asked the question, said in an interview later the guidance was fine but had hoped for a straighter answer.

“It kind of contradicted what they said earlier in the conversation,” she said. “In one aspect they were saying social distance and avoid crowds, but then they we saying it’s kind of up to you all how you take care of it.”

Texas has more than two dozen cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

The new coronavirus — which was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday — causes only mild or moderate symptoms for most people. But it can cause more severe illness including pneumonia in older adults and people with existing health problems. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus, which causes COVID-19, within weeks.

On the Texas border, El Paso County Judge Richard Samaniego said he supported Abbott leaving the decision up to them, saying that his first call would be to Mexico, not Austin, if a border crosser was found to have the virus.

“We are so different. I like the local freedom that he gave us today,” he said.

Associated Press reporter Cedar Attanasio in El Paso contributed to this report.