BRAZOS COUNTY, Texas — The Brazos County Health District confirmed Tuesday seven residents died of COVID-19. Our hospitals are at max capacity for ICU hospital beds and 71 residents remain hospitalized. With triple digit new known cases being reported by the health district on a daily basis for weeks now, who is in charge of enforcing Governor Abbott's GA-32 order?
Executive Order GA-32 went into effect on October 14, 2020. Governor Abbott issued this order, which stated businesses could open at 75% capacity, however, if patients who are diagnosed with COVID-19 are hospitalized and those patients exceed 15% of the total hospital occupancy rate, then businesses will have to decrease back down to 50% capacity.
This order is being monitored by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, or the TABC, which said it is checking on all 254 counties in Texas.
“TABC receives notification from the Texas Department of State Health Services that a particular trauma service area [which] normally encompasses 8-10 counties [has] reached the level of 15% of their hospital COVID hospitalization rate for a seven consecutive day period," said Chris Porter. Porter is the Public Information Officer for the TABC. "Once we receive that notification under Governor Abbott’s executive order GA-32, that means that bars can no longer operate in that area and restaurants must reduce capacity to 50%."
Porter said once the TABC receives the notification from the Texas Department of State Health Services, it contacts the county judge. Porter said Brazos County received a notification on December 28, stating local hospitals had reached the capacity, putting GA-32 into effect for not only Brazos County, but also other counties in the Brazos Valley.
However, it's now January 12, and Brazos County has yet to reduce capacity for restaurants, or close down bars. According to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, a county can file for an attestation to continue to operate at 75%. Leon and Madison Counties have done this, but not Brazos County.
“We understand a lot of things are changing very quickly so because of that situation and everything else going forward with the pandemic," Porter said.
So why hasn't Brazos County Judge Duane Peters enforced Governor Abbott's Executive Order? The TABC sent Judge Peters the order, stating Brazos County must close bars and reduce restaurant capacity to 50%, but Judge Peters said it's not up to him. He said it's up to law enforcement and the TABC to enforce the order.
KAGS reached out to the College Station Police Department and the Bryan Police Departments, who said they work with the TABC, but it's not clear who is in charge of enforcing Governor Abbott's Executive Order.
Despite the rise in hospitalizations since December as well as deaths from COVID-19 in Brazos County, Judge Peters said he has no intention of changing current capacity rules in Brazos County.
“I'm not a fan of closing down the bars or limiting restaurants," Judge Peters said. "I haven’t seen any evidence that we can attribute this increase and spread of COVID back to restaurants and bars. If that’s available, I'd like to see it."
There is at least one local health expert that agrees with Judge Peters. Dr. Angela Clendenin, with the Texas A&M School of Public Health, said the recent surge in cases isn't from bars or restaurants; it's from household transmission after people traveled and spent time with family during the holidays.
"Our county leadership has really done a great job in trying to take into all these considerations and doing what’s best for Brazos County based on our situations and the data that we operate off of," Dr. Clendenin said Monday.
Judge Peters said it's all about the data and facts when it comes to COVID-19. "I don’t like the idea of pointing our finger at a particular business or group of businesses that say you’re the problem unless we can prove that they’re the problem,” Judge Peters said.
He said he's willing to consider Governor Abbott's order only if the data shows where the spread is happening. "I’m not going to be pushy and say you can’t see your families or go to church. In my opinion, that’s not constitutional,” Judge Peters said.
So if a county doesn't comply with Governor Abbott's order, then what happens? The TABC said it gets assistance from local authorities to investigate complaints during the pandemic. If TABC agents find a violation, they can issue sanctions and fines, even close down a business. However, Porter said the TABC wants to work with people.
"We’re doing our very best to make this kind of an educational aspect of our inspection," Porter said. "We go to a location and see a business that might be operating technically in violation because they simply weren’t aware of the changes. We will work with them to help them understand the current guidelines."
Again, who is going to enforce Governor Abbott's Executive Order? The answer, at this time, remains unclear.