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Led By Science, Clay Jenkins Pushed Dallas County Virus Response Ahead Of Texas

Marjorie Kamys Cotera
The Texas Tribune
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

Each day, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins holds a noon phone call with about 250 first responders, agency heads and others trying to keep a handle on the county’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

When he signs off, Jenkins makes an ask of them: Have grace toward one another, but also have grace toward yourself.

“[It’s] to recognize that those who are at the front lines have to make decisions quickly, decisively and many times a day,” Jenkins explained last week, talking by phone as he took a short walk through his neighborhood. “We will be wrong, and when I’m wrong they all have grace toward me — and perhaps I will exhibit less grace toward myself — but I need them to exhibit grace toward themselves, not just toward others.”

The 56-year-old Democrat, a lawyer and small business owner, was first elected in 2010 to lead the nation’s eighth most populous county, home to 2.6 million people in more than two dozen cities, including Dallas. When Jenkins began, balancing the county budget without raising taxes seemed like the toughest challenge he’d face.

But the new coronavirus outbreak is confronting Jenkins with the sort of trials no elected official wants. His decisions might determine whether someone lives or dies — and some have already died.

Timidity did not seem the right approach, he says. Determined to move aggressively wherever the science leads him, Jenkins plunged in, moving swiftly to clamp down movement, close non-essential businesses and lock down as securely as possible the sprawling enterprise that is Dallas County.

Jenkins’ rapidity put him out ahead of other large counties and the state. There has been grousing — and tension — with neighboring counties as Jenkins has tried to pull them along his chosen path. And the grace Jenkins asks of his first responders has given way to a different tone in his empathic demands for Gov. Greg Abbott and the state to do more, particularly when there’s no way to know how far the contagion has already spread.

Never in his years of public service, he says, has a sense of urgency been more vital. Jenkins recites the numbers off the top of his head — if 2% of his county’s residents are sick at the same time, there’s enough hospital beds. Above that, it could mean devastation.

“When you’re talking about being 5,000 beds short or 71,000 beds short, what you’re talking about is people calling the doctor because mama can’t breathe and being told I’m sorry we don’t have a bed for her,” Jenkins said. “That’s a place where no one wants to be.”

On smaller scales, Jenkins has dealt with public health crises before, and he’s been assertivein facing them. When a West Nile virus outbreak came to Dallas in 2012, he took heat for greenlighting aerial insecticide spraying across the county. When the first U.S. case of the deadly Ebola virus was confirmed in Dallas two years later, Jenkins entered the apartment of the family of Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national who traveled to Dallas with the virus, without any protective gear and personally drove the family to a new home.

But when the new coronavirus came to Dallas County last month, pulling the county judge away from his typical budgetary and administrative duties, it forced his hand in making what were once unimaginable decisions to financially upend the lives of so many of his constituents.

“I understand how devastating this is on people’s paychecks, on their families, on their small businesses,” Jenkins said. “But we have to put our lives over our livelihoods.”

Deciding when to close down businesses and indefinitely cut off Texans’ income — and their ability to pay their bills and feed their families — is a line many elected officials are navigating.

Constitutionally, Texas counties derive their power from the state. In recent years, an incessant tug of war has developed between counties trying to exercise local control and Abbott and GOP lawmakers trying to shift more power to Austin. But as the threat of coronavirus fanned out across the state, Abbott left tough decisions about closures and stay-at-home orders to local leaders whose judgment he’s recently questioned. He’s even welcomed local officials to outpace the state.

Like other county judges and mayors, Jenkins has done so repeatedly. He’s also emerged as an unceasing agitant of the governor.

Moving quickly after Dallas County health officials found evidence of community spread of the virus, Jenkins declared a local disaster and restricted large gatherings on March 12, a week before the state would take any action on limiting gatherings.He continued to pare down the limits in line with guidance coming out of the White House.

Then, Jenkins ordered bars and restaurants to close except for takeout, and prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people. The next day, he publicly exhorted Abbott to follow suit “so we can have a fighting chance” against the virus.

“I enacted those recommendations less than 3 hours after they were released yesterday,” Jenkins said on his Twitter account, pointing to the density of his region. More than 7.5 million people live in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. “We need your help. Please consider and act on the [White House] guidance to insure some don’t simply cross county lines to congregate.”

Abbott would take similar sweeping statewide action two days later.

When Abbott resisted calls to announce a statewide stay-at-home order days after that, Jenkins decided again to go first.

Earlier on March 22, during the kind of televised press conference the governor favored to announce incremental statewide changes, Abbott explained his hesitance: "What we may be right for places like the large urban areas may not be right at this particular point of time for the more than 200 counties that have zero cases of COVID-19,” Abbott said.

But Jenkins has argued all along that restrictions and orders have to be uniform if the coronavirus spread is to be slowed.

“It won’t work if we don’t do it as a state and so the governor needs to act and he needed to act last week and he needed to act when we did,” Jenkins said last week. “And frankly we all maybe needed to act sooner than we did.”

Absent statewide action on mandates to limit movement, Jenkins hopped on regular calls with other county judges and officials in his region “who weren’t quite there yet.” In some cases, explanations fromhospital officials about the stakes with infection rates and possible death tolls helped encourage the hesitant.Day by day, additionalNorth Texas officials issued stay-at-home orders that were closely aligned.

But bringing others onto the same page came with tension.

“[Jenkins] is big on wanting us to be at the same plan as long as it’s his plan,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley. "Unfortunately, a lot of it started off with someone jumping out there and throwing something out and us then catching up. I think we could do a better job of all coming together and talking about it as opposed to popping something out and then everybody figure how do we go, what do we do."

Tarrant County came under scrutiny as it held off issuing a stay-at-home order. On the day Jenkins announced his directive for Dallas, the Tarrant County commissioners court decided to wait. Whitley said the county judges of the big six counties in the state had been regularly exchanging messages in the days leading up to both of those decisions, and it was clear they were eventually going to issue similar orders.

But for Whitley, his decision couldn’t come until he had consulted with mayors of cities in his jurisdictions and the hospitals and health care providers that would care for his constituents. And he wanted to give them the opportunity to make suggestions to his drafts.

“It may keep us a day or so behind, but it’s working so far,” Whitley said.

Among the longest holdouts was neighboring Collin County — home to 1 million people — where County Judge Chris Hill ordered residents to stay home but declared all businesses and workers as “essential to the financial health and well-being of our local economy,” allowing them to continue going to work.

Hill, who did not respond to the Tribune’s request for comment, chafed at expanding the order despite pressure from Jenkins and other local leaders, and insisted the region's approach was unified. “We are talking about making sure as we move forward over the next two to four to eight to 12 weeks that those families have the resources they need to provide food and shelter and health care for their families," Hill said during a press conference announcing his order.

Collin County’s reticence created the patchwork of orders Jenkins feared would limit North Texas’ ability to mitigate the spread of the virus in the region — and he drew from it to continue to pressure the governor.

“What I can do, I can lead through persuasion, and I can pull in the business community and I can organize hospital systems and I can organize a unified law enforcement response to the extent that they will let me through the power of persuasion and their acceding to that,” Jenkins said last week. “And I can have great power in what I can pass in an emergency in Dallas County, but the governor has that same ability if he’ll use it for the whole state and that’s what needs to happen.”

Days before, Jenkins had even called on an unusual partner for help, asking President Donald Trump to provide governors with “political cover” so they’d act on statewide stay-at-home orders.

On the morning of March 31, Jenkins rose early. At 5:23 a.m. he fired off a tweet thanking construction, grocery, trucking and other essential workers.

By then, Jenkins had likely pulled up 365PROMISES, the website he’s been going to every morning when he wakes up, for his daily devotional. As the number of positive coronavirus cases and the death toll rise, Jenkins has asked his constituents to look to prayer when it feels they’ve hit their individual limit.

“What I’ve told the public is when you feel panic, move to prayer and personal responsibility,” Jenkins said. “When you feel fear, move to faith in the power and faith in the science that is guiding this response.”

Later that day, Abbott signed the order Jenkins was hoping for. It came after Trump extended federal distancing guidelines after his advisers painted a grim reality. Modeling showed that 200,000 Americans could die even with some of the restrictions that had already been put into motion.

On Tuesday, the governor told Texans to stay at home for the next month unless they are taking part in essential services and activities. His messaging was muddled by his refusal to call his directive shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order. But in an interview with the Tribune after, he said “it’s a fact” that the order brings Texas in line with other states that have issued such orders.

Soon after, Jenkins took to Twitter, which he’s been using to provide guidance and answer questions about county restrictions, to shoot down claims non-essential businesses under Dallas County’s order could reopen under Abbott’s directive.

“His order mirrors our order,” Jenkins wrote. “If you believe they conflict; ask him.”

This story was provided by The Texas Tribune.