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Koch and Jenkins clash over Dallas County COVID-19 response as cases continue to drop

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, travelers wear masks as they make their way through Love Field airport, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Dallas.
LM Otero
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, travelers wear masks as they make their way through Love Field airport, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Dallas.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and Commissioner J.J. Koch sparred over the county’s coronavirus response on Tuesday, as metrics showed a continued drop in cases and deaths.

Koch, the lone Republican on the commissioners court, questioned continuing Jenkins’ mask mandate for county buildings and public schools at Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting. It was issued last August.

“I think the public needs a greater deal of transparency in when this thing ends, and how we are going to deal with things in the endemic stage,” Koch said.

Jenkins repeated his decision to follow the judgement of local hospital leaders who sit on an advisory committee.

“It falls on me as the emergency management director to make certain decisions,” he said to Koch. “I choose not to use politics and sticking my thumb in the air to see which way the wind is blowing to make those decisions. You disagree with it, which is your right.”

There are no penalties for not following the county’s mask mandate.

The back-and-forth came as COVID-19 metrics are showing a decline in omicron cases and deaths. The 7-day case average in Dallas County is down over 700 cases from the previous week, and the death rate has dropped sharply since early January.

But Dr. Philip Huang, the county’s health director, said while there is a downward trend, case numbers are still serious enough to keep the county’s transmission level at the high risk “red” level for now.

“We will be reconvening later this week and definitely reviewing the possibility of going to orange,” Huang said.

During Huang’s presentation, Koch noted that states like New York and Rhode Island have lifted indoor mask mandates despite higher per capita case numbers than Dallas County. New York’s mask mandate is still in place in schools and public transit, and Rhode Island’s school mask mandate ends on March 4.

"When do we lose our credibility?” he asked Huang. Koch later referenced a debunked paper to question the effectiveness of masks, while acknowledging criticisms of the study.

Huang noted the director of the CDC still recommends masking inside in public places, despite the optimism over falling cases.

“Historically, what we’ve seen is when the numbers start to go down, everyone just relaxes and things just go back to normal, and then something happens and the numbers start going back up,” Huang said.

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.