In March, Governor Greg Abbott traveled to Montelongo’s, a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, to announce that Texas was back. It was a few weeks shy of the anniversary of the first COVID fatality in the state, and Texas was averaging around 230 deaths a day from the virus. Nonetheless, Abbott assured his audience at the restaurant that, because of the presence of vaccines, it was the right time to end statewide mask mandates and allow businesses to reopen at 100 percent capacity. Describing Texas as a land of unparalleled economic freedom and opportunity, the governor struck a proud yet unenthusiastic tone—the “city on a hill” speech if John Winthrop had summited the mount and realized his shining town overlooked a strip mall. “At this time,” Abbott flatly intoned, “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.”
Democratic politicians promptly slammed the governor for his order. President Joe Biden labeled the decision “neanderthal thinking”; Beto O’Rourke called it a death warrant. But, as it has with many apocalyptic prophecies, time proved the warnings premature. On May 16, the state recorded zero COVID fatalities for the first time since the earliest days of the pandemic. Abbott, ignoring the old American wisdom of declaring victory and getting out, hit the conservative media circuit the next day with a more modern approach: dunking on his critics and staying in. “The people on the Democrat side want to push narratives,” the governor said on Fox News on May 17, “whereas what I was looking at was math and science.”
Indeed, by the early summer, the math and science did appear to be on Abbott’s side—though more because of what he hadn’t done than what he had. Throughout the pandemic, Abbott had largely avoided issuing mandates, instead striking a profile in encouragement. His “it’s your responsibility” approach had asked Texans to opt for safer behaviors rather than requiring them to. When that strategy seemed to teeter, he had let county judges issue, and take heat for, mandates and restrictions.
Largely because of those local officials and responsible citizens and business owners, Texas had the twenty-fourth highest fatality rate among the fifty states by May, and the twenty-sixth highest cases per capita. Middling numbers, but not quite the calamity predicted by some. No part of the U.S. handled COVID well—the country has the world’s most reported cases and deaths—and people of color and the impoverished suffered disproportionately. But in the early summer, Texas ranked ahead of the large blue states of Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York, whose governor had once had a standing invitation on CNN to discuss his pandemic successes. And, to boot, Abbott had also reopened the economy earlier than all other states except Florida. Of the ten largest state economies, Texas experienced the smallest drop in employment percentage from February 2020, the last month before the pandemic began to rage, through May 2021, when Abbott’s victory tour began.
But Abbott’s laissez-faire approach was about to backfire. As a result of lagging vaccination rates in the state, the numbers started to change almost immediately after his media tour. New COVID cases in July rose 376 percent over June. By early September, the state was averaging more COVID deaths per day than it had when Abbott fully reopened the state in March. Meanwhile, he was getting no credit from his right for lifting all restrictions—just the opposite, in fact. Abbott’s two right-wing primary challengers in 2022, former state senator Don Huffines and erstwhile state GOP chair Allen West, both gave early July addresses at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, positioning themselves as freedom fighters against a tyrannical Abbott. “When Ron DeSantis was basically running the country,” Huffines jeered to applause, “Greg Abbott was following that lying fraudulent Fauci for nine months.”
This is when Abbott finally decided to get hands-on. But instead of confronting the resurgent crisis by issuing vaccine mandates, he launched a crusade against them. In June, he signed a law banning “vaccine passports.” In July, he issued an executive order doubling down on the bill and restricting businesses from requiring customers to show “documentation regarding the individual’s status for any COVID-19 vaccine administered under an emergency use authorization.” In August, two days after the Pfizer vaccine was authorized for general use, Abbott issued another executive order banning government agencies or businesses receiving state funds from requiring their workers or customers receive any COVID vaccine. Renae Eze, a spokesperson for the governor, reassured a reporter with the Texas Tribune that the order would not apply to private employers since “private businesses don’t need government running their business.” That thinking lasted all of two months: in mid-October, Abbott issued yet another order banning any entity, including private ones, from requiring vaccination for customers or employees.
Many businesses in Texas were displeased, to say the least. American Airlines and Southwest, among others, announced they wouldn’t change company policy to comply with the ban, and chambers of commerce around the state denounced the move. In a statement “defend[ing] the rights of businesses,” Laura Huffman, president of the Austin chamber, wrote that the ban was “contradictory to previous orders the governor issued that reinforced the rights of businesses to choose a path that works best for themselves when navigating the pandemic.”
Abbott is well within his authority, technically, to do all this. The Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the governor extraordinary powers to act during an emergency. But its authors perhaps didn’t expect it to be used the way Abbott is now employing it: to prevent others from mitigating disaster. Months into Abbott’s crusade against vaccine mandates, Texas’s death per capita rate has risen to seventeenth highest in the country. A study published in The Lancet, a medical journal, finds that if Texas had matched the vaccination rate of the top five states, the state would have had 37,500 fewer hospitalizations and 6,300 fewer deaths by the end of August. Abbott has abandoned not only math and science, but also his pro-business policies, to disastrous effect.
What makes Abbott’s orders restricting the ability of private businesses to impose their own vaccine mandates so remarkable is that his whole pandemic approach, from the start, had been about limited state interference in business decisions. Three days before he announced a “shelter in place” order across Texas in spring 2020, Abbott was already plotting the reopening of the state. Late in the evening on March 28, he dialed James Huffines, a commercial banker, aide to three Texas governors, a former UT regent, and brother of Don, Abbott’s soon-to-be challenger. (That’s according to Huffines; Abbott declined a request for an interview.) At that point, there were 410 reported COVID cases in the state and five deaths. Bars, restaurants, and schools were closed. Abbott’s message to Huffines was clear: the state needed to protect business. “James, we don’t know much about where this is going. We don’t know how long it will last,” Huffines recalls Abbott telling him. “This is an opportunity for a real competitive advantage for Texas for the long term.” Abbott wanted Huffines to chair a “Strike Force to Reopen Texas,” guiding the state out of disaster to dominance.
Huffines accepted the role. He began recruiting a team, largely of disciples—24 of the 38 other members had donated to Abbott—whose chief concern was saving businesses from total shutdowns. As his second-hand man, Huffines tapped Mike Toomey, a Texas power broker who had pivoted from gubernatorial staffer to lobbyist and back enough times to dizzy a quick-change magician.
Unsurprisingly, business interests were front of mind for the strike force. In mid April, Huffines sent an email—obtained via public records request by Texas Monthly—to the group with a mental-health policy institute’s projection that there’d be 3,150 additional suicides and overdoses should unemployment remain elevated by 20 percent for a year. “This is very interesting and makes a clear case of the danger for staying shut down which none [sic] talks about,” he wrote. That projected number was surpassed by COVID fatalities in three months’ time.
Throughout the spring, businesses besieged the strike force with requests to reopen, often employing a sort of pandemic newspeak. A bowling alley proposed recommendations for sanitizing “high touch objects,” formerly known as “bowling balls.” When the strike force okayed galleries to reopen in early May, a botanical garden poetically tried to rebrand as a “living museum.”
Twice a week, Huffines and Toomey had a standing 10 p.m. call with a panel of four medical advisers during which they discussed those requests and, if they reached unanimous consensus, formalized proposals to bring to Abbott, who had the final call. Texas largely opened for business, occasionally against the recommendations of the medical advisers, according to interviews with two of them. But Abbott’s approach didn’t prove an abject failure. For one, many reopenings—notably at salons, which had been hammered in the press—were carefully considered by the strike force and well managed.
And when reopenings proved ill-advised, the strike force was responsive to new data. This spring and summer, I interviewed four members on the strike force (including two of the medical advisers), who all described Abbott as detail-oriented, well-read on the newest studies, and willing to follow the science when reopenings proved faulty. After the state allowed bars to reopen at 25 percent capacity in June, cases spiked—and contact tracing revealed that bars were among the epicenters. Abbott shut them down a month later, and even admitted his mistake.
In October, with protocols for future reopenings set, the strike force silently disbanded. Members, who signed up for ninety-day commitments, had volunteered for three months longer than expected. Some had “burned out,” according to Huffines. Toomey reregistered as a lobbyist, advocating to legalize gambling. By this past March, when Abbott traveled to Lubbock to announce the full reopening of Texas, he had consulted only one of the force’s medical advisers, former GOP state representative John Zerwas, about his decision. Zerwas, who’s a physician, told me in June that he had advised Abbott that mask mandates weren’t necessary, reasoning that he personally continued to wear a mask not because of mandates but because of public-health messaging. Therefore, according to Zerwas’s logic, “the weight of the state” wasn’t needed to encourage others to stay safe.
In fact, it seems, most Texans were no longer looking to Abbott for guidance anyhow. When the governor reopened the state in March, he might not have followed the science, but the science followed him. In May, a National Bureau of Economic Research paper tracked the long-term effects of Abbott’s rescinding of the mask mandate. The researchers found the executive order had no substantial effect on personal behavior across urban and rural areas, or across Trump-voting or Biden-leaning ones. COVID behaviors had calcified early in the pandemic: those who had been wearing masks kept doing so, those who hadn’t kept not doing so. Foot traffic at restaurants and bars increased in Texas at the same rate it did in states that hadn’t lifted restrictions. The number of folks who never left home remained unchanged. The mask policy reversal also didn’t appear to affect case rates. (Unfortunately for Abbott, the study found that the order didn’t improve employment rates either—so he couldn’t boast about that, at least not accurately.)
Abbott’s orders now, however, can have a large effect. While behavior such as mask wearing is hard to change—and enforce—even with mandates, vaccine requirements are effective. Mandates in New York hospital systems raised vaccination rates among employees by more than 15 percent, while mandates in New York City public schools raised vaccination rates among employees to 96 percent. A mandate from health insurer Kaiser Permanente in California raised vaccination rates among its 300,000 employees by 20 percent. And mandates on consumers can also make a difference. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey from June, more than 40 percent of unvaccinated Americans said they’d be more likely to get a shot if it were required either to attend a large gathering or travel on an airplane.
With the number of Texans opting to get vaccinated beginning to plateau, calls for personal responsibility no longer suffice. More than 26 percent of eligible Texans have remained unvaccinated, compared with 15 percent in New York and 13 percent in California, which each have a patchwork of mandates for certain employees. There is a clear path out of the pandemic through the vaccine, as Abbott himself noted in his address in Lubbock reopening Texas. If the governor does not have the political will to impose mandates, he at the very least could return to his original conservative approach and get out of the way of businesses doing so. His latest culture war is of real consequence.
Before the delta variant began to spread, during the time when many were waiting to be eligible for vaccination, Texans held up their end of the “personal responsibility” bargain. Consider the weeks in March after Abbott announced that the state would fully reopen—when the case rate began a steady, ultimately unsustained, decline. Shortly after Abbott’s press conference, the State Preservation Board announced it would allow tours of the Governor’s Mansion again. Visits had been suspended throughout 2020, despite the tours being eligible to resume per the strike force, because the mansion also doubles as Abbott’s residence. I signed up for the first tour, betting I’d get enough color for a story on the maskless refugees heading to the mansion like it was the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But I was the only person who’d showed up.
I came back repeatedly that week at scheduled tour times without encountering other visitors. Finally, that Friday, on my fourth visit, a group of masked women toured the mansion. One wore an “Eat the Rich” shirt. She told me she’d been emailing the State Preservation Board every day for a year about what she deemed a hypocritical decision to keep the mansion closed at the same time it was deemed safe for other businesses to open. She’d shown up for the tour out of guilt, to give a $50 Starbucks gift card to the poor state agent who had responded to her daily inquiries. But, she said, the visit itself was underwhelming. Abbott was nowhere to be seen.
Now that we’ve reached a new stage of the pandemic, in which a steadfast contingent of eligible Texans haven’t gotten the vaccine, and the limits of personal responsibility have been exposed, that Abbott—out of sight, out of mind, out of the way—might be a relief.