Closed beaches. Mask mandates. Restaurants closures. Personal precautions or lack of them.
Which parts and what views of the pandemic will Galveston County voters carry with them into voting booths in coming weeks, and how much will local races be influenced by a global pandemic that might be a deciding factor on the national level?
Local leaders have had shifting responsibilities during the eight months since the coronavirus emerged in Texas. Early on, in March and April, local mayors and city councils were making decisions on whether to close businesses and public places, and whether to require people to wear face masks in public places.
In Galveston, the pandemic prompted some unprecedented actions. Mayor Jim Yarbrough in April closed beaches for almost all of the month and did again before the Fourth of July weekend.
The closures were controversial — the July closure received particular criticism for happening just days before the major tourism holiday — but in hindsight they seemed defensible, said Galveston mayor pro tem Craig Brown, who is running for mayor. After the closures and mask order, local cases of coronavirus began to decline.
“I would like for the citizens to evaluate how the city has responded and how the current administration has responded and make a decision about whether they feel it was in the best interest of the community,” Brown said.
Brown’s campaign for mayor was both extended and changed by the pandemic. The city council election was supposed to be held in May but was delayed until November because of the pandemic.
In July, former Mayor Jim Yarbrough stepped down because of health concerns related to the pandemic, leaving Brown in charge of acting as mayor — and giving him the emergency powers that come with that job.
Brown has had to make fewer controversial decisions in the latter half of the year. He chose to leave beaches open during the Labor Weekend, and there was no subsequent spike in COVID-19 cases after that end-of-summer event. Similarly, Brown has been the person who makes the ultimate call on allowing events of 10 or more people to happen in the city.
On other issues, like wider reopening, Brown has been spared — or denied — any decision-making power. This week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott gave county judges the power to decide whether to allow bars to reopen after being closed, under Abbott’s orders, since July. Brown and other local officials were left out of the decision.
Time might have softened some voters’ criticisms of incumbent city leaders, but Roger “Bo” Quiroga, the former Galveston mayor who has spent more than $90,000 over the past two years in the race for mayor, said there is still room to criticize and questions incumbents.
Quiroga said the city should have had a better communication plan about COVID-19, both to avoid surprising business owners with closure, like the city did in July, and to better communicate the threats to vulnerable communities, such as Hispanic residents and workers. Quiroga also said the city should be putting more money aside to help struggling businesses and share some of the hardships.
“What did the city do to show the public that we were all hurting in this thing?” Quiroga said. “They didn’t cut the budget any, they didn’t cut salaries any. There’s a lot of things we could have done, but they’ll say we didn’t have the time to do it.”
The city has implemented a hiring freeze during the COVID-19 pandemic and the city’s 2021 fiscal year budget was about $17 million less than its 2020 budget. However, most of the changes come from decreases in planned spending on capital projects, according to city documents. The city’s 2021 operating budget increased by about $3 million this year.
For the most part though, Quiroga said he didn’t want to get too involved in judging the city’s public health decisions as right or wrong and noted the severe disagreements and feelings that could inspire in some residents.
Bill Keese, another mayoral candidate, said he too was hesitant to campaign on the public health decisions made earlier in the year.
“I’m not asking people to judge them; they did the things that they thought were right to do,” Keese said, adding that he thought the city should continue to make science-driven decisions.
BEYOND CITY COUNCIL
Local-level criticisms over pandemic decisions aren’t limited to the island’s city council race.
Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset has defended his decision-making after more than 40 prisoners and employees at the Galveston County Jail were diagnosed with COVID-19 in July. Before the outbreak at the jail, Trochesset didn’t require employees at the jail to wear masks or distribute face coverings to all jail inmates.
Mark Salinas, Trochesset’s Democratic opponent, said the jail should have been better prepared against the virus.
“When it comes to the jail, there were some services that were lacking for the deputies and the inmates,” Salinas said. “I would never use the pandemic as a crutch for my campaign at all, but you can never do too much.”
Trochesset said he followed the guidance of state and local health experts and changed the jail’s policies once it was apparent that it was necessary. On Friday, only two jail inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, he said.
“There are only two inmates in the entire facility right now, with over 930 in the jail; that’s a better ratio than out in society,” Trochesset said. “Technically, they’re safer in the jail than out of the jail as far as COVID goes. How do you do a better job than that?”
Farther up the ballot, candidates’ criticisms get more big picture. State Rep. Mayes Middleton, who is running for reelection to the Texas House of Representatives, has made issue of some of the state-imposed restrictions on the coronavirus and promised to reform emergency power rules if he was reelected to the legislature.
U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, who is running for a fifth term representing Galveston County in Congress, has criticized his colleagues in Congress for not attending committee meetings in person and tweeted pictures of himself sitting in empty rooms in Congress as his colleagues hold meetings through video conferences.
Political pandemic choices aren’t the only thing at play this campaign season. At least one candidate in Galveston has harped on his opponent’s personal choices regarding COVID-19.
Last week, as campaigns began to push harder ahead of the start of early voting on Tuesday, Frank Maceo, a candidate for Galveston City Council District 3, criticized incumbent Councilman David Collins for campaigning door to door during the pandemic.
He challenged Collins to stop door-knocking.
“If we’re going to exercise safety and best practices during a pandemic, I’m not asking people to come to the door and talk to me,” Maceo said. “That’s gross. It’s as simple as that.”
But, Maceo added that he didn’t necessarily support mandates on mask-wearing and other COVID-19 measures and said he believed people should be expected to follow rules because the science of COVID-19 was settled and wearing masks “is what’s cool.”
Collins, who has supported the citywide COVID-19 precautions implemented throughout the year, dismissed Maceo’s criticisms.
Collins felt voters weren’t turned off by his approaching them uninvited, so long as he wears a mask and respects their personal space. He hasn’t gotten much negative feedback, he said.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Collins said. “There are a few people that don’t want to answer the door. But the number of people that don’t answer the door because of the mosquitos far outweigh the number that don’t because of COVID.”
Early voting begins Tuesday. Election Day is Nov. 3.