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A Texas Democrat on the Lone Star State ending COVID restrictions

As of Wednesday, Texans can work and gather without a statewide mandate for masks or social distancing, after Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order earlier this month that declared the state "100 percent open." Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat and head of Harris County's governing body, which includes Houston, joins Lisa Desjardins to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meantime, starting today, Texans can work and gather without a statewide mandate for masks or for social distancing, after Governor Abbott signed an executive order earlier this month that declared the state — quote — "100 percent open."

    Lisa Desjardins talks to a local leader there about what comes next.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We get a sense of where things stand with Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat. She is the head of the governing body of Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston and is the third largest county in this country.

    Judge Hidalgo, let's start, first of all, with setting the scene for us. Take us there. Are people wearing masks for the most part, or no? And do you think it's safe to, in fact, lift the mask mandate now in Texas?

  • Judge Lina Hidalgo:

    Starting today in Texas, every kind of entity, big or small, gathering big or small, can take place at 100 percent capacity and all mask mandates have been lifted.

    In fact, counties and cities have been prohibited from implementing their own mask mandate. It remains to be seen what folks do, but if history is any indication, we will see folks wearing masks less and less as the days go by. Initially, we had a mask mandate here in Harris County about a year ago at this point.

    Folks were wearing their masks. Then the governor superseded that mandate, eliminated it. Folks stopped wearing the masks, until the governor reinstated the mask mandate, which he's now again removing.

    Now, was it a good idea? I'm afraid not. I'm afraid it was premature. We have such good news in terms of the stimulus package we were just hearing about, in terms of the vaccines that are steadily coming. And so we know we're going to get to the point that we need to get to, but we're not there yet.

    In Harris County, for example, less than one in 10 people over the age of 16 have been vaccinated. So, we have got a ways to go. And there's no reason why to open ourselves up to unnecessary death, unnecessary hospitalizations, just for the sake of wanting to claim a premature victory.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I hear you talking about that concern over safety.

    But some business owners in Harris County, I have seen their words. They say that they're thrilled that they can reopen fully. And they say they can decide for themselves if they want to impose restrictions within their place of business, enforce a mass kind of mandate of their own within their restaurant, for example.

    Why shouldn't business owners be able to do that? What do you say to those struggling owners who really want to reopen?

  • Lina Hidalgo:

    First, I understand the challenges that everybody has been facing over the past year, and the very real economic challenges that folks are facing.

    But the truth of matter is, we are not going to fully recover economically until we get past this virus. Now, we have known that every time there's been a reopening in the state, within a month or so, the hospitalizations and the deaths have shot up.

    We don't need to lose more people, knowing that the end is in sight. Why should government intervene in this kind of situation? Because it's a disaster. The lack of government engagement, regulation, in terms of preserving our ability to produce energy, is what led to the crisis just a few weeks back here in terms of the winter weather, now again with COVID.

    During a disaster is specifically the time when individuals alone, private businesses alone, can't possibly take care of the entire community. That is when government needs to step in.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I know that you spent time with President Biden in the past few weeks when he visited. And a bill now moving to his desk is the American Rescue Plan.

    Inside that bill is $900 million just for Harris County alone, more for the city of Houston as well. That's almost a third of your annual budget. Why is that much money necessary right now? And how do you plan to spend it?

  • Lina Hidalgo:

    The — we're very grateful to our congressional partners, the administration for this bill. Of course, the aid for individuals is huge, but for localities as well, because we're out there providing the vaccines, the clinics.

    Folks need us more than ever. In fact, we have used local dollars, tens of millions of local coffers, in supporting small businesses, folks who have lost their employment. And we were getting to a point where we were concerned about whether we'd be able to balance the budget with the lack — the reduced revenues that we're expecting.

    So, it's big help. And, look, we're going to continue, as we did with the past set of federal dollars, to give that straight to these ailing businesses, these folks who, frankly, have been on the front lines. I mean, you talk about the business leaders who are saying 100 percent no masks, but we have got a lot of people who are actually still maintaining the mask order And the capacity limitations to protect the community.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Very briefly, though, in this last 30 seconds, you were able to make your budget. You did have a balanced budget in the last year, and, in fact, just a little bit more revenue that you have to spend this year.

    Why should the federal government, Republicans are asking, be sending money to counties like yours, which don't have a budget problem?

  • Lina Hidalgo:

    It depends, right?

    So, the cities, they rely on the sales tax. So, they're feeling the hit right now. For us, as Harris County, we rely on property taxes. We're going to feel that bigger impact in the next year. And we are seeing additional needs not just from COVID, but also from the winter storm.

    So, as we make our budgetary projections, we do need to be able to make up the gap. And we have been doing broadband programs. We have been doing small business, domestic violence, child care, all kinds of programs directly to the community. And this will let us continue to do more.

    The fact is, the sooner we get through this, we get those vaccinations, we wear those masks, the faster we're going to recover, the faster the economy is going to be back on track.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judge Lina Hidalgo of Harris County, Texas, thank you for joining us.

  • Lina Hidalgo:

    Thank you.

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