Dressed smartly in a navy blue suit, Dallas County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins stood behind a lectern on Sunday, March 22, 2020, in the Dallas County Administration Building. His characteristically hoarse voice was softer as he spoke. With a brow that furrowed during his remarks that evening, Lewis Jenkins had the grim sound and look of a man weighed down by the worried eyes of millions.
“I bring you a difficult decision, but based on science,” he said immediately after the start of the broadcast that had interrupted normal local television programming. “Dallas County will transition to a safer-at-home order, also known as a shelter-in-place order.”
Sitting in his office three years after that dramatic day, Lewis Jenkins recalls much of how hectic life was during Dallas County’s response to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. His announcement of the order moved the coronavirus from a foreign news topic on television to a major player in North Texas living rooms.
“I remember the speed,” says Lewis Jenkins of the week leading up to the announcement of the order. “I remember the very first order was ‘Hey, we’re not gathering in groups larger than a few hundred.’ And then the next thing we know was, “Guys, we need to close the meals ourselves.” He then moved very quickly to the shelter-in-place order.
In fact, things progressed rapidly. Annual March holidays, including the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, and even Dallas’ legendary Greenville Avenue St. Patrick’s Parade were wiped off the calendar rather quickly after a increase in COVID-19 cases reported in the United States during the first two weeks of March. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
“With everything that was going on back then, it was a dark time,” he recalls when asked about his state of mind that Sunday night. “We were having very heavy discussions. I haven’t looked back at the press coverage, but I’m sure I was grim. And a little lack of sleep.”
Headlines from the day he issued the shelter-in-place order explain why Lewis Jenkins hadn’t slept much in the previous days. The first page of THE Dallas Morning News on March 22, 2020, it was filled with timely headlines including “A Million Could Lose Their Jobs as Texas Restaurant Tables Empty” and “Sick Texans Awaiting Exams.” A couple of days earlier, the Observer published an article about a Dallas police officer who had tested positive for the coronavirus, something he felt was life or death at the time, because for many such a diagnosis in those days was life-threatening.
“Early I was told by friends at the CDC that they couldn’t talk to me about certain things, like what their research said about people’s safety.” — Dallas County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins
During his press conference remarks, Lewis Jenkins discussed the importance of “flattening the curve.” He used visual aids to show projections for how the county’s possible number of COVID-19 cases might compare to the number of available hospital beds. “Flatten the curve” was one of the most important new additions to the popular vernacular in the spring of 2020. Seemingly out of nowhere, terms like “contactless delivery”, “PPE”, “remote learning” and “live streaming concert” are become common.
Opinions about Wuhan’s markets, toilet paper supply, and whether hair salons should be open were topics of hot debate long before anything related to the COVID vaccine took its place at the top of the sociopolitical divide. With bars, movie theaters and gyms closed, professional sports leagues inactive and concerts pushed only into the virtual realm, time for online debate fueled by cable news was more than ample.
Lewis Jenkins has also often been the subject of debate. As a county judge, he became somewhat of a political lightning rod, not unlike Dr. Anthony Fauci, then director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. As a Democrat who oversaw the closure of some businesses and rallies, the county judge was a frequent target of Texas conservatives who said the government was going overboard to control the spread of the virus.
Judge says since the start of the pandemic he could have tweeted “a picture of a puppy or something, and I’ll get 20 or 30 replies saying ‘If it’s your puppy, I hope he dies.'”
On the other side of the coin, however, as March 2020 progressed, Lewis Jenkins also didn’t mind voicing his thoughts on the Republican leadership’s COVID response. He still doesn’t mind doing it three years later.
Lewis Jenkins recalls that during the Ebola outbreak in 2014 he and then-Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, presented a united front that he says was largely welcomed as a “bipartisan, non-politicized thing.” “. But in 2020 the climate was different, a climate that Lewis Jenkins says was favored by both Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the president at the time, Donald Trump.
“That [bipartisan collaboration] it was really lacking in the beginning,” he says. but we were able to work around that but it was a challenge at first and things kept getting more political.
Perhaps the most captivating political debate during the early part of the pandemic in North Texas involved a hair salon owner named Shelley Luther. Lewis Jenkins says Luther’s decision to keep his salon open despite orders to close it gave residents a very good chance to take sides, especially after the president and governor became involved.
“Trump tweeted him and Abbott just turned to jelly,” says Lewis Jenkins. “So he became a politician and people were like, ‘By God, haircuts are important and I don’t care about this health emergency.’ Of course it was financially damaging to have companies shut down, but there were people who took sides and looked for the science that said to do something different than what the doctors at Baylor, UT Southwestern or the CDC said. There was a schism that still exists today.
“I had a clarity that maybe isn’t always there when deciding where to hang a picture in your office.” — Dallas County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins
tweet this To avoid getting bogged down in the day’s bad news, Lewis Jenkins encouraged his team to spend at least 15 minutes each morning doing something to center themselves. Meditating, praying, walking the dog or doing yoga – anything that can take their mind off the daily activities ahead of them. Judge also implemented what he calls a “buddy system,” in which each person on his team had two other people who checked on them to make sure they were okay and getting enough sleep.
Working hours of the day and night would offer plenty of time to enter the topics, decisions and developments of the pandemic. Having the final say on whether and when a county of more than 2.5 million people would be placed under a shelter-in-place order is something Lewis Jenkins wanted the most consistency for.
“It was kind of weird, you know, I make decisions every day at the job I have, but not decisions like that,” she says. “When decisions are literally decisions of life and death situations every few minutes, maybe it was the adrenaline kicking in or something, but I had a clarity that maybe isn’t always there when deciding where to hang a picture in your office.”
Lewis Jenkins admits there are many things he can look back on and know he would do differently if the need arose. He says anyone who thinks they’ve done everything perfectly under such circumstances is “delusional”. He takes pride in the times he and his team had to pivot or improvise, including the time, he says, when he contacted Tito’s Vodka in Austin to make much-needed hand sanitizer.
As incisive about a decision as issuing the stay-in-place order, Lewis Jenkins had already decided how he would know it was time to deliver the order. Three years later, his decision-making seems almost too simple, but nothing was simple in March 2020.
“I’ve always had a level of certainty that we would follow science wherever it takes us, that there are infectious disease doctors and public health professionals who have trained their entire adult lives to advise us in these moments,” she says. “And so we were looking at incoming evidence and then taking aggressive action on that evidence, rather than what Governor Abbott did for the state 11 days after we did it here. Tarrant County and Denton County and surrounding counties did it right after us, so someone had to go first, right?