In the formal reception room of his Capitol office on March 22, Governor Greg Abbott sat at the desk where he signs bills into law, trying to project leadership at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the frame behind him, the state’s health and emergency management directors posed next to the U.S. and Texas flags. In just seventeen days, the state had gone from 0 COVID-19 cases to 263, with five deaths in the Houston and Dallas–Fort Worth areas. City and county officials had closed bars, restaurants, and gyms.
But Abbott declined to adopt such measures across the state. “Understand this, and that is I am governor of 254 counties in the state of Texas. More than 200 of those counties in the state of Texas still have 0 cases of people testing positive for COVID-19,” Abbott said. “At this time, it is not the appropriate approach to mandate that same strict standard across every area of the state.”
So county judges in the largest metro areas continued to take the lead, operating with Abbott’s blessing. Over the next nine days, the number of confirmed cases in the state jumped to 3,266 with 41 deaths, spreading from 46 counties to 122. The governor finally relented and issued a stay-at-home order on March 31.
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Over the next month, Abbott apparently changed his mind about local control over the pandemic response. As other Republican governors reopened their states, the right wing of the Texas Republican party and its financial supporters among business executives began applying pressure for him to do the same. Abbott could afford to take the risk. In April a poll by the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler reported that 86 percent of Republicans surveyed said he was doing a good job. Plus, the number of jobless Texans was nearing two million, and they were eager to go back to work.
On April 27 Abbott ordered a partial reopening of the Texas economy—freeing the public to attend movies, dine in restaurants, and play in parks—superseding local governments and limiting their ability to enforce either his orders or their own. He overturned Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s order for her constituents to wear a mask and said no jurisdiction could fine people for not doing so.
When Dallas hairdresser Shelley Luther was jailed for refusing to close her business—a punishment allowed under Abbott’s original closure order—and then became a cause célèbre for conservatives, the governor reversed himself and declared that no one could be jailed for failing to follow a COVID-19 emergency order. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat, called Abbott’s reversal on enforcement “clearly political.”
For most of his tenure, Abbott has pushed for and signed into law legislation that has curtailed local power, especially the Democratic influence in blue cities. He had overturned Denton’s ban on gas drilling in the city limits and Austin’s restrictions on tree cutting, and he had opened up San Antonio to lawsuits for banishing Chick-fil-A from the city airport. But now he was taking such measures to new extremes.
In mid-May Texas attorney general Ken Paxton wrote a warning to officials in Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio threatening suit over specifics of their local public health orders, where they differed from Abbott’s. Austin mayor Steve Adler, in response, lamented that he had made a point of not engaging in “naked politicization” of the virus and did not plan to get sucked into a fight.
In June, a harsh reality began to set in. From the start of the pandemic in March until April 30, the day before the state began reopening, Texas reported a total of 28,087 positive tests for the virus and 782 deaths. By mid-June, the number of infected Texans had tripled and deaths had topped 2,000. New cases and hospitalizations ticked up by the day. The Texas Medical Center, in Houston, warned it was just weeks away from exceeding its ICU capacity.
On June 16 nine Texas mayors released a public letter asking for the authority to require the wearing of face masks in their cities. Abbott said he believed in individual responsibility and that persuasion was better than mandates.
Then the governor blinked. The very next day, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued a new order instituting fines of up to $1,000 against businesses that did not require patrons and workers to wear masks. The governor suddenly gave Wolff his blessing, saying that had been his intent all along. “The county judge in Bexar County finally figured that out,” Abbott said on a Waco television station.
Not to let a news cycle go by without looking like the man in charge of a return to normalcy, Abbott had his education commissioner announce on June 18 that students would be returning to classrooms in the fall.
This weekend, audio leaked of two employees of the right-wing group Empower Texans criticizing Abbott’s latest mask order while making fun of him for being in a wheelchair. A Tarrant County tea party group castigated the governor for allowing local officials to mandate businesses mandate masks, calling him “Governor Abdicate.”
From the left, the hashtag “#AbbottBetrayedTexas” trended on Twitter, with complaints that the governor had put business ahead of lives in reopening without the virus being under control. There were also calls for Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick to resign.
On Monday, Abbott said if Texans follow his voluntary guidelines, the state can limit the spread of the virus. He urged Texans to wear masks and cajoled them to stay home. “Texans have already shown that we don’t have to choose between jobs and health. We can have both,” Abbott said. “Together, we can keep Texans safe. Together, we will keep Texas wide open for business.”
The very next day, Abbott authorized local governments to reduce the size of outside gatherings from five hundred to one hundred going into the Fourth of July holiday, using standards set by one of his executive orders. By Thursday, Abbott ordered hospitals in four counties to halt all elective surgeries. Abbott also paused any further reopening of the economy beyond what he already had allowed, and what has been blamed, in part, for the current spike: bars and businesses open at 50 percent capacity, restaurants at 75 percent capacity. “The last thing we want to do is go backwards and close down businesses,” Abbott said.
Then, Friday morning, Abbott ordered some businesses to close down and others to scale back: bars that receive more than 51 percent of gross income from alcohol sales had to close by noon, and restaurants have to limit capacity back to 50 percent starting Monday.
All through May and early June, Abbott ignored warnings from local officials. Now he’s backpedaling, but it might be too late for thousands of Texans.
In the fourth week of June, the number of COVID-19 cases grew by more than 9,000 to hit 40,920 active infections, with 3,409 people in the hospitals. Within days, active infections surpassed 50,000, with more than 4,000 Texans in hospitals.
As the numbers of infected and hospitalized grew, Baylor College of Medicine virologist Dr. Peter Hotez said if the trajectories persisted, Houston could become the most coronavirus-affected city in the United States. We can hope and pray for the best. But if this spike comes, Abbott won’t have the local officials to blame.