By Gary Borders
A growing number of school districts, counties and cities have defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates, as COVID-19 cases continue to spike due to the delta variant and a low rate of vaccination among Texans.
As KUT.org reported, officials in Dallas and Bexar counties won a first round in court in requiring masks in public schools and most government buildings. School districts in Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, among others, are requiring students, teachers and staff to wear masks.
Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are appealing the initial district court decisions and have vowed to sue any government official who defies the governor’s order.
Hospitalizations, COVID-19 cases continue to rise
Meanwhile, the number of new cases of COVID-19, overwhelmingly among unvaccinated Texans, continues to rise with 98,383 reported in the past week along with 628 deaths, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. Hospitalizations are approaching the peak levels of mid-January, with 11,381 lab-confirmed COVID-19 patients, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, up 27% from the week before.
As students return to classrooms across the state, the number of children in Texas hospitalized with COVID-19 is at one of its highest levels since the pandemic began. In the 19-county region around Dallas and Fort Worth, there were no staffed pediatric beds available late last week, according to KUT.org.
DSHS reports 13.055 million Texans are fully vaccinated, about 44.7% of the total population.
Democratic lawmakers still absent; arrests ordered
The Texas Senate last week passed Senate Bill 1, which would establish new restrictions on voting, despite a 15-hour filibuster by state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers in the House continued to break quorum to stave off a House vote on the measure, despite arrest warrants issued by House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.
The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily blocked district court orders that would have allowed more than 40 House Democrats to avoid civil arrest warrants. The Democrats were expected to issue a response to the high court’s ruling this week, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
Texas Democrats have denied Republicans a quorum since the closing days of the regular legislative session. The Legislature is now in its second special session, with Democrats decamping to Washington, D.C. to push for a federal voting rights bill. Some lawmakers have since returned to Texas but continue to stay away from the state Capitol.
Seized alligator snapping turtles returned to nature
A multi-agency effort has led to the release of 21 adult and six juvenile snapping turtles back into East Texas, after being seized in an illegal traffic attempt. A 2017 investigation by game wardens with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department into the poaching of the turtles led to the arrest of three men, two of whom received prison time in December of that year.
Alligator snapping turtles are among the largest freshwater turtles in the world and can grow to weigh more than 200 pounds with a lifespan of more than 100 years. The turtles are designated as threatened with statewide extinction under Texas law.
The turtles were taken to the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery after the seizure and released recently under a joint effort with TPWD, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Stephen F. Austin State University and others. The turtles are a popular food item in Louisiana, which limits catches to one per day.
Early August rainfall above normal for half of state
Just 1% of the state is suffering drought conditions, primarily in the Big Bend area, a small piece of Northeast Texas near the Oklahoma border and the northwest tip of the Panhandle. That’s the latest report from Dr. Mark Wentzel, a hydrologist with the Texas Water Development Board.
Three months ago, 45% of the state’s area was in drought, while a third of the state suffered from drought conditions a year ago.
Pedestrian, bicyclist deaths continue to climb
While traffic casualties declined in 2020, Texas saw a steep rise in the number of people killed while walking or biking on the state’s roadways. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, 731 people died in pedestrian-related crashes last year, up 9% from 2019. Bicyclists killed in crashes totaled 82, up from 68 deaths the previous year. Overall, the number of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths has been steadily increasing the past five years, according to TxDOT.
“Whether you’re behind the wheel, on foot or riding a bicycle, we’re reminding all Texans that they need to be safe and smart, and that starts with paying attention to driving and obeying traffic laws,” said Marc Williams, executive director of TxDOT.
The agency’s “Be Safe. Drive Smart” campaign features safety reminders on television, billboards, gas pumps, buses and social media. They are components of #EndTheStreakTX, which encourages driver safety. The last death-free day on Texas roadways was Nov. 7, 2000.
Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park.