On the night of March 4, 2020, Fort Bend County Judge KP George approached a lectern at a county office in Richmond to address a hastily called news conference.
A man in his 70s had tested positive for COVID-19, George told reporters. The man was also the first non-imported case of the new coronavirus in Texas.
“I knew it was serious, but I thought — maybe four weeks, eight weeks, a couple months, it will just go away,” George said in a recent interview. “And it did not go away.”
Authorities would later reveal that the man was among a group that traveled to Egypt and took a cruise along the Nile River. Others cruise travelers also tested positive. Twenty days later, county residents were ordered to stay at home. Bars, restaurants and other non-essential businesses were shut down to prevent the spread of the virus.
Like local officials around the Houston area, George, then in his second year as county judge, soon found that managing a pandemic response would become a full-time job. After scrambling to shut down businesses initially, they grappled with a rising infection rate and death toll; restaurants and bars eager to reopen; Gov. Greg Abbott’s moves to curb their powers to respond; and finally the supply-and-demand issues arising from vaccine distribution.
George’s warnings, like those of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, have proved prescient, as the state has recorded more than 2 million cases of COVID-19 and over 44,000 deaths.
The 56-year-old George’s tough decisions have drawn racist attacks focusing on his Indian heritage, but he said he’s also seen the community band together.
“I tell you this, yes, it was a tough journey for a lot of people,” said George, who also lost a relative to COVID-19. “One of the reasons is really, if you lost somebody to this crazy thing, what do you tell them? What do you tell them? When their life is altered for good.”
The day after the first case was announced in Fort Bend, life still appeared normal in the diverse county of more than 810,000 residents.
People worked out at LA Fitness. They walked into the local HEB grocery store without masks.
Still, county health professionals fielded phone calls related to COVID-19 from concerned residents in Rosenberg. At a senior community center in Sugar Land, a group of about 60 seniors were educated about the illness during a city-sponsored meeting.
But such large gatherings were soon about to become nonexistent. Within days, the Houston Rodeo would be canceled, the NBA would suspend its season and area school districts and universities would shut down.
On March 17, George ordered that all bars close and restaurants revert to takeout, delivery and curbside pickup only.
Seven days later, George, after consulting with medical professionals such as Dr. Jacqueline Johnson Minter, the county’s new health and human services director, issued a “stay home to save lives” order.
George also discussed the matter with Turner and Hidalgo, both fellow Democrats. The trio would hew closely to the advice of health professionals as Republican leaders in Austin and in neighboring counties pushed for a quick reopening of the state that spring.
“I talked to these people and they were all in the thought process of okay maybe, this is the best thing we can do,” George said. “And that’s why we did it.”
After the stay-home order was issued, George said he noticed state and federal elected officials conveying a different message to the public about the urgency of the health crisis.
“The biggest problem I faced was the double-standard from Gov. Abbott,” George said. “Initially, he said local jurisdictions know better about their community…and then he came back and said I’m going to take over.”
Abbott began reopening the state in May, arguing that the number of infections was “beginning to level off.” He prohibited local officials from fining people who refused to wear masks in public (Abbott ultimately reversed course and issued his own mask order after infections began to rise again in June).
As conservatives took aim at mask wearing and business restrictions, George and Hidalgo, a Latina, faced racist messages over their actions. George posted a sample of them on social media during the summer.
One post said, “Texans… if KP George Tries to Take Away Our Freedom… It will NOT Be the First Time a Foreigner has Attempted to do so… KP George is NOT an American!!! How did Fort Bend County Let a Foreigner… An American Hater become so Powerful??? How did we let this happen??? KP George is from Kerala India… Remember the Alamo!!!”
Over the summer, George was confronted by an angry man in a parking lot.
“He kind of wanted to beat me up,” George said. “He said I’m a liar and I keep lying and I’m destroying everything.”
George’s staff advised him that he needed security.
“When these people come with me, I feel kind of awkward,” George said. “This is my community. I need security to go walk in my community and talk to my people. So, it came that far.”
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said the invective directed at George “reflects the changing politics in the state.”
“You’ve got a growth of minority populations in areas where it didn’t exist, 20 to 30 years ago,” Rottinghaus said. “Those changes can be uncomfortable for some people, and as a result the elected leaders take the brunt of a lot of that criticism.”
Pushback to policies
By summer, COVID-19 cases were on the rise in Fort Bend County and the state.
At one point in July, Texas was averaging more than 100 deaths a day.
County officials opened coronavirus testing centers, including one at the Smart Financial Centre.
Rottinghaus said George and other officials have excelled at communicating with the public during the crisis.
“They’ve been in constant communication with the public,” Rottinghaus said. “Those are things that make the business community happy because it allows them to understand where the county is coming from and it reassures the public about what’s happening in some very otherwise unusual times.”
George drew criticism last summer from two Republican county commissioners, Vincent Morales and Andy Meyers, for his moves
to require face masks in businesses and county offices
Morales alleged that commissioners had been “kept in the dark” about decisions included in George’s order. Meyers voiced concern about the impact on businesses.
“A punitive order against businesses is a slap in the face to everyone who has worked hard to facilitate the distribution of these relief funds,” Meyers said at the time.
Neither responded to requests for comment for this article.
Still, George is heartened by stories such as those of families dropping off masks at the county’s emergency management office.
“I tell you, I have seen people dropping everything on the side and coming and helping,” George said.
‘Trial by fire’
A year after that March 2020 press conference, the county has logged more than 51,000 cases and 511 deaths.
The recent freeze and mass power outages brought a new wave of fatigue to exhausted residents.
Still George, who slept in his office during the winter storm because his home lacked electricity, said he was optimistic.
Roughly 100,000 people have been vaccinated in Fort Bend so far, between the county and area partners in the community, according to George.
Fort Bend was designated a distribution hub, allowing it to receive larger quantities of the vaccine.
The county also recently lowered its threat level from red to orange.
Rottinghaus noted how unusual it is for a new county judge to go through so many unprecedented crises in their first term.
“It has been a trial by fire for the judge,” said Rottinghaus. “It’s something that normally a county judge will see in a career, not in a first term. That’s been really unusual. I think he’s handled it really well.”
Hidalgo said in a statement that neither she nor George “could have imagined the emergencies that awaited us” when they took office in January 2019. She called George her “ally in service.”
“We agree that leaders must be humble enough to heed the advice of true experts, and not the fickle winds of opinion polls, as we guide our communities through each crisis, be it a pandemic, a hurricane, or an industrial disaster,” Hidalgo said.
George said he remains grateful for having had the opportunity to serve. The pandemic, he said, has been transformative.
Said George: “I am a better person today than a year ago.”