City Hall

Jenkins, Johnson Play the Same Tune, but Foundation Below Them Is Cracking

Dallas City Council member David Blewett
Dallas City Council member David Blewett Jim Schutze
The novel coronavirus-inspired era of good feeling is over, at least among Dallas County's local politicians. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson are still reading from the same script, pushing caution and safety above all else. Officials one rung below them on the County Commissioners Court or the City Council, however, are getting restless.

At the county level, Commissioner John Wiley Price has led the push against Jenkins' power. This week, he secured a concession from the judge — getting pawnbrokers and check-cashing shops reopened — and got his fellow commissioners to back a pair of measures limiting Jenkins' power to unilaterally impose restrictions on Dallas County's residents and businesses. Through the first three weeks or so of the COVID-19 crisis, Jenkins had, in large part, a rubber stamp. No longer.

Members of the City Council showed similar frustration with Dallas' ongoing economic freeze Wednesday.

During a round of question and answer with Dr. Philip Huang, the head of Dallas County Health and Human Services, council member Carolyn Arnold compared the lockdown to being on a plantation. The city, she said, needs to be properly educated about the virus so it can stop living in fear, properly protect itself and head back outside.
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Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson
Brian Maschino

Then came council member David Blewett, who, not for the first time, argued with Huang about just how dangerous coronavirus is.

Ever the skeptic, Blewett challenged Huang on whether COVID-19's mortality rate was still believed to be higher than the seasonal flu's.

"It's still considerably higher than seasonal flu," Huang said.

He then wondered aloud about the nature of pandemics.

"I think we've had 2,650 Texans die this year from the flu and we don't call that a pandemic," Blewett said. "Why don't I look at those numbers, why don't we call the flu a pandemic?"

"Well, it's not new," Huang said. "It's a new virus. We don't have a vaccine. We don't have any treatment, and it's spreading throughout the globe. A wide spread, but the biggest difference is that this is brand new, people don't have any immunity and we don't have any vaccine and we don't have any treatment."
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Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, at DFW International Airport in 2017, has made it clear that, yes, the county will be using the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center as a temporary hospital.
Matthew Martinez

Then Blewett had another idea.

"So we're getting more data. We have some data, I'm curious about the percentages. We've got hospital reports saying beds occupied 2,700 out of 5,300. ICU bed 482, 782. Our total, ventilators 322, we have a total of 894," Blewett ticked off. "I just did some rough numbers, even though these aren't COVID people. Right now, beds occupied 50%, ICU beds 61%, ventilators 36%. Since we're trying to make sure that we don't overburden the healthcare system — it seems like we're doing that. It seems like we're being very effective at managing it because we're running at 50% capacity.

"If you get back to the idea that we're flattening the curve, that means we're lengthening the curve and causing greater harm in the economy. Why wouldn't we — we're not preventing infections, we're not preventing deaths, what we're doing is flattening the curve so we don't overwhelm the system — why wouldn't we want to be running at 80% capacity so that we could shorten the curve, not just flatten it?"

"In terms of titrating it just to that right level," Huang said, "there are a lot of unknowns. These restrictions are really unprecedented. We don't know exactly how much (the infection rate) is going to slow down. We're trying to look at that and monitor what we're seeing. We are still seeing increases in the hospitalizations, in the ICU beds, but they have not overwhelmed the system so far."

Later this month, both the county commissioners and City Council are going to have a say in whether the shelter-in-place rules issued by Jenkins and Johnson are extended. However things go, you can expect a fight.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young