19. It was a three-alarm blunder
Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell stopped by a county firehouse in April to borrow firefighter gear to wear to his grandson’s birthday party—an act that was, as a criminal complaint pointed out, a violation of the county’s shelter-in-place order, which Gravell himself had put into effect.
18. There’s a 99.9 percent chance his fans won’t care that he got this wrong
In July Allen West, the head of the Republican Party of Texas, said that he didn’t want the state to impose draconian measures “over something that has a 99.9 percent recovery rate.” As critics noted, to extrapolate the 99.9 percent figure, West used an outdated statistic for the number of COVID-19 fatalities in Texas and then divided it not by the number of Texans who had contracted COVID-19 but by the state’s total population—most of whom had never had the disease and therefore hadn’t “recovered.”
17. “Well, I didn’t say you had to spend all your time at home”
Mayor Steve Adler announced in a November 9 Facebook video that Austin residents needed to “spend more time at home” in order to help contain the coronavirus and that “this is not the time to relax”—but neglected to mention that he had recorded the video at a time-share in Cabo San Lucas, to which he had flown with seven other people on a private plane.
16. Says the senator from a state where we proudly eat cow brains and beef cheeks and rattlesnakes and. . . . Anybody else’s mouth watering?
U.S. senator John Cornyn said that China produces pathogens like the novel coronavirus because of “the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.”
15. Other than the part about controlling and preventing disease, they did a great job
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a woman from isolation at San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base who then tested positive for the coronavirus. The woman, who had recently returned from a trip to Wuhan, China, may have exposed at least a dozen Texans to COVID-19.
14. Anybody have alien DNA on the ol’ bingo card? One more time . . . alien DNA. Anybody?
In July President Trump promoted a video of a speech by Houston physician Stella Immanuel in which she asserted that Americans didn’t need to wear masks to protect themselves from COVID-19 because hydroxychloroquine would cure it. Asked what he thought of Immanuel’s earlier claims that doctors use alien DNA for medicine and are trying to create a vaccine to keep people from becoming religious, Trump replied, “I thought her voice was an important voice.”
13. Who is that unmasked man? It’s the Lone Ranter!
An administrative manager at a Dallas law firm was fired after posting a Facebook rant about his local Whole Foods requiring him to wear a mask. “Do I have to show the lame security guard outside of a ghetto store my CV19 test results? I will show him my Glock 21 shooting range results,” he wrote. “They have reached the limit. I have more power than they do . . . they just don’t know it yet.”
12. And then he asked for a cash contribution to his “Covid Begone!” emergency fund, just to be sure
In the spring, the Fort Worth–based televangelist Kenneth Copeland stated that the pandemic would be over “much sooner than you think” because of Christian prayer. He then summoned the “wind of God” to obliterate the virus, which he claimed had been “destroyed forever.”
11. You may not believe in COVID, but it believes in you
In July, San Antonio megachurch pastor John Hagee sued the city to stop a health department order that would delay the beginning of in-person classes, including at religious schools. Two months later, after publicly minimizing the threat of the virus, the eighty-year-old televangelist contracted COVID-19 and spent fifteen days in the hospital with double pneumonia before recovering.
10. There’s a 35 out of 100 chance that he’s permanently damaged his reputation
Food and Drug Administration commissioner Steve Hahn, who previously served as chief medical executive at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, falsely claimed in August that an experimental blood plasma treatment would save the lives of 35 out of every 100 COVID-19 patients who receive it. In fact, the treatment would reportedly save 3 to 5 percent of patients. Hahn later apologized for the misstatement.
9. New York, New York! / It’s a helluva town! / The Bronx is up, but compared to Texas, the COVID fatality rate’s down!
In May Michael Quinn Sullivan, then head of the conservative activist group Empower Texans, stated on Facebook that “a third of all coronavirus cases and deaths in the US have occurred in the Democrat-run slum known as New York City and the immediate area. The State of New York has less population than Texas, but has more than 6 times as many cases of Chinese coronavirus . . . and 19 times as many deaths.” By October, Texas—likely thanks in part to those like Empower Texans, who have opposed mask mandates and business shutdowns—had twice as many cases as New York State, and the number of daily fatalities was three to four times as high.
8. If you thought that was bad, wait till you see his Yelp review
A Cedar Park man was accused of robbing a local Asian restaurant after learning that it was open for takeout service only. According to the arrest affidavit, the man, who was in the mood for a sit-down meal, screamed at the establishment’s employees, shoved one of the owners, pushed items off the shelves, and stole several bottles of alcoholic beverages.
7. We have other reasons for wanting him to cover his mouth
After East Texas congressman Louie Gohmert discovered that he had potentially been exposed to COVID-19 in March, he forswore a mask while leading a group of more than a hundred schoolchildren on a tour of the Capitol. Gohmert, who eventually contracted the disease in July—after being accused of running an office where employees were berated for wearing masks—went on to suggest that using a mask may have given him the disease.
6. His only regret is that he has but one life to lose for his ignorance
In late March, Dallas media impresario and conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck stated that although, at 56, he was “in the danger zone” during the pandemic, he wanted everyone over 50 to return to their workplaces. “I would rather die than kill the country,” he said.
5. Maybe he and Glenn Beck could get a 2-for-1 deal at the mortuary
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said in late March that he knew of plenty of seniors like himself who would be willing to die from the coronavirus to save the economy for their grandchildren.
4. Would you like coffee, tea, or video evidence of your reckless behavior?
During a United Airlines flight from Washington, D.C., to Austin, Texas congressman Michael McCaul removed his face mask, a violation of the airline’s rules. When McCaul’s election opponent’s campaign posted a video of a maskless McCaul, the congressman claimed that his mask had simply fallen off while he was asleep. The opposing campaign then posted further video of McCaul awake and scrolling through his phone while his mask hung from one of his ears. McCaul later apologized for his transgression (though not for having lied about it).
3. Ted’s just angry because Trump didn’t call Brown’s wife ugly
In mid-November, Texas senator Ted Cruz called Ohio Democratic senator Sherrod Brown “a complete ass” for wearing a mask during a Senate hearing and for insisting that Senator Dan Sullivan wear a mask as well. “[Brown] wears a mask to speak—when nobody is remotely near him—as an ostentatious sign of fake virtue,” Cruz tweeted. “@DanSullivan_AK was over 50 feet away, presiding. Last I checked 50 feet is more than 6 feet.” In fact, as numerous commenters noted, Senate staffers were much closer than that to both Brown and Sullivan. The day after Cruz’s tweet, 87-year-old Iowa senator Chuck Grassley announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19.
2. Maybe his toothpaste was infused with something stronger
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who was warned by the FDA last spring to stop hawking “nanosilver-infused toothpaste” as a cure for COVID-19, showed up at Austin’s Barton Creek Greenbelt in August and screamed at a group of teenagers who had been hired to check hikers for reservations before allowing them onto the trail. “This is an illegal power grab of the people’s greenbelt, and it is time to free Austin!” yelled a sweaty and unmasked Jones.
And our #1 Bum Steer of the Plague Year is . . .
Governor Greg Abbott
The spotlight shone hard and bright on Texas governor Greg Abbott at his press conference on March 31. The novel coronavirus was on the rise, and other states were ordering citizens to stay home and nonessential businesses to shut down. In Texas, some pressed for tight restrictions, while others stoutly opposed them. Whatever course Abbott chose, many Texans would be furious. But hard times call for hard choices, right?
That day, Abbott revealed a set of restrictions and guidelines that he called the “Essential Services and Activities Protocols,” and it wasn’t immediately clear what it was. Was it a shelter-in-place order, a journalist asked? Shelter-in-place was a “term of art,” Abbott explained, and this wasn’t one. Initial reporting held that Abbott had declined to issue a stay-at-home order. Except he had, though it was subtly disguised, as his office sought to clarify the next day. The reporters in the room couldn’t quite figure out what he was saying, and many folks watching at home couldn’t either.
This dynamic played out again and again in 2020, as Abbott sought to deflect criticism by hiding his intentions and contradicting himself. At first, he urged local officials to take the reins and do what was necessary to fight the virus. When those measures became unpopular, he stepped in to nullify orders issued by local officials. When infections spiked once more, he placed blame on local officials for not doing enough. He took responsibility when it was politically advantageous to do so and shirked it when it wasn’t.
It didn’t work: his attempted obfuscations kept uniting his critics from the left and right in head-scratching confusion over the governor who didn’t seem to like to govern, and his polling numbers dropped significantly over the course of the crisis, even as leaders in other states grew more popular. Abbott proclaimed that violators of his April shutdown order could be fined or even jailed. When one contentious merchant did go to jail—rebel salon queen Shelley Luther, valorized by conservative opponents of COVID-19 restrictions as the Rosa Parks of Dallas cosmetologists—Abbott blamed her arrest on local officials and “freed” her, a ruse that failed to convince hardly anybody.
Perhaps the most ridiculous episode came in the wake of Abbott’s decision, on April 27, to prohibit local officials from requiring citizens to wear masks in public after protests against one such order in Houston. Such moves were tyrannical, Abbott said. But then infections shot up, and local officials like Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff begged the governor for the power to reinstate the mandate. Abbott refused, saying that his anti-mandate stance sprang from a deep conviction. “Judge Wolff and I have a philosophical difference. He believes in government mandates,” the governor said in a television interview. “And I believe in individual responsibility.” But at the same time, his office complained that local officials weren’t using all the tools he had made available to them. Huh?
Wolff was the first to break the code, by instituting a mask order that mandated not mask wearing but, instead, that businesses mandate that their customers wear masks, a distinction that only a lawyer could love. Abbott, acting as if he were the host of a network game show, publicly congratulated Wolff. “Earlier today the county judge in Bexar County finally figured that out,” he told a Waco TV station. “Pursuant to my plan, local governments can require stores and businesses to require masks. That’s what was authorized in the plan.” If only we had solved the puzzle earlier! If only Wolff had landed on the Daily Double! In a rare show of unity, Democrats and Republicans, the masked and the maskless, castigated Abbott for turning a life-and-death matter into a riddle. (Abbott later offered his own statewide mask order, making his earlier coyness seem even more ridiculous.)
One riddle we’ve never been able to figure out: What does this guy think a governor is supposed to do? Every state has had a hard time with this once-in-a-century crisis, and every governor has made mistakes. In fact, earlier in the spring, Abbott posted information to his Twitter account showing a higher death toll in California and New York than in Texas, almost as if he was gloating. But by November, more Texans than Californians had died from COVID-19, even though the Golden State has 10 million more residents.
There are many reasons for our state’s poor response to the COVID-19 crisis, and many Texans—and non-Texans—who share responsibility for it. But none of them abdicated their duties as profoundly as our governor did. Which is why Greg Abbott, the Sphinx-on-the-Colorado, is our Bum Steer of the Plague Year.
This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The COVID Nineteen.” Subscribe today.