In happier times, the governorship of Texas was regarded as a “weak” office compared to its counterparts in other states. But as the COVID-19 crisis draws on, and on, and the Legislature remains out of session, Governor Greg Abbott has come to exercise a kind of unitary power over life in Texas. He has begun to resemble not so much a governor as a Dungeon Master, leading the state through a role-playing game of his own devising. And on Wednesday, Abbott had some hearty congratulations to offer the judge of Bexar County: Nelson Wolff, you’ve solved my riddle!
The riddle in question stems from executive orders that the governor has issued since April 27—orders that appeared to be bad news for the rowdy band of adventurous local elected officials who find themselves stuck in Abbott’s dungeon. Some of them, notably Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, had previously made wearing a mask in public mandatory in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (Mask-wearing is one of the easiest and most effective things you can do to help others.) Conservatives protested, and Hidalgo was denounced by a number of Houston-area Republicans, including Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Abbott swept in with an order that clearly established that local officials could not impose penalties on anyone who refused to wear a mask.
“We make clear that no jurisdiction can impose any type of penalty or fine,” he said at the time. “My executive order, it supersedes local orders, with regard to any type of fine or penalty for anyone not wearing a mask.” Clear enough.
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But now, after a series of Abbott orders that relaxed restrictions on business openings and public gatherings, COVID-19 cases have spiked, and the state is heading in a dangerous direction. (Hidalgo warned last week that Harris County was on the “precipice of a disaster.”) This week, local officials petitioned the governor for the ability to reinstate mask mandates. On Tuesday, Abbott dropped a hint of sorts through his spokesman, implying that there was a solution contained in one of his executive orders that local officials could take but hadn’t, but he didn’t identify it.
Then Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff just went ahead and instituted a mask order. Instead of mandating mask wearing, he mandated that businesses mandate that their customers wear masks. Was a showdown coming? No, Abbott said on Wednesday, to the surprise of just about everybody to Abbott’s right and left alike. “Earlier today the county judge in Bexar County finally figured that out,” he told a Waco TV station. “They finally read what we had written.”
This had been the “plan in place all along” Abbott said. “Pursuant to my plan, local governments can require stores and businesses to require masks. That’s what was authorized in the plan.”
Abbott was saying, in other words, that it had been his plan from the beginning to allow local officials to mandate that businesses mandate masks—effectively making them mandatory—without Abbott mandating them directly. It was a loophole. Except, because Abbott never publicly signaled that’s what he was doing, it was more like he had offered a riddle. A riddle, like the one the Sphinx offered Oedipus. And Wolff had solved it.
This is a confusing way to make policy. One interpretation of what’s going on is simply that Abbott is a man of the law at heart, a former judge and attorney general. He is reputed to be a close-reading, detail-oriented guy, and this is simply how he works.
The other read is that Abbott is trying to make his intentions as opaque as possible for political reasons. Most Texans are willing to do whatever it takes to get through the pandemic, but a very loud contingent on the right of the Republican party has skewered Abbott every time he has laid down new restrictions, and big business is antsy to get everyone back to work. Republican officials have tried to deflect this anger toward city and county officials. By quashing local officials’ mask mandates only to later let them reinstitute mandates anyway in a slightly different form, Abbott is trying to have it many different ways.
This type of maneuver has dictated Abbott’s response to COVID-19 generally. Call this most recent imbroglio the Greggian knot. A Gordian knot is a complicated problem with a simple solution. A Greggian knot is a simple problem made hopelessly complicated by the governor’s own desire to be removed from the consequences of his own actions.
Think back to March. As the virus started to spread, Abbott first suggested the burden to act was on locals. “Local officials have the authority to implement more strict standards than I as governor have implemented in the state of Texas,” the governor said on March 22. “If they choose to do so I would applaud them for doing so.” Because Texas is so big, and each place was in such different circumstances, he explained that it did not make sense to “mandate the same strict standard across every area of the state.”
But Abbott faced mounting pressure to act. Governors around the country were issuing stay-at-home orders. He also faced right-wing pressure not to act. So he issued what was effectively a stay-at-home order—at a press conference at which he expounded at some length that he was not issuing a stay-at-home order. When asked if he had implemented a “shelter-in-place” order, he complained that shelter-in-place, as a “term of art,” was confusing and inexact. For greater clarity, he called the plan in his Executive Order for the entire state an “Essential Services and Activities Protocols.”
At that time, he ordained that breaking the … ESAP?… could be punished with a fine or jail time. But when Dallas hairdresser Shelley Luther was hit by the fine Abbott laid out for opening her business before she was allowed to, then refused to follow court orders and went to jail, becoming in the process a cause célèbre for conservatives around the country, Abbott blamed local officials and retroactively nullified the penalties he had implemented a month before. Because of the fight, he also appeared to advance the calendar of when some businesses could open in Texas, even as COVID-19 cases were not yet on the decline. Meanwhile, he issued statewide orders that superseded local ones, contrary to his direction in March that local officials take the lead on mitigating the virus’s spread.
Abbott gets high marks in polls for his response to COVID-19, and is the most popular Republican elected official in Texas: a recent Quinnipiac poll put his approval rating at 56 percent. (No other statewide official cracks 50; Republican senator John Cornyn’s approval rating is just 37 percent.) One explanation for this is that the public quite likes what Abbott is doing. Another is that nobody really knows what Abbott is doing—apart from being a reassuring face on local news.
I couldn’t tell you what Abbott’s position is on most of this pandemic policy, and it’s ostensibly my job. It’s hard not to suspect that the confusion is by design. But while Abbott’s personal political needs may call for confusion, everybody else needs clarity. Many people are going to die, and in the weeks it took for Abbott’s riddle to be solved, Texas lost time it doesn’t have to spare in the fight against the virus.
And it may be the case that Abbott’s approach to governing is losing some of its appeal. It worked pretty well at the beginning, certainly. But when Abbott stepped in to save Luther from himself, there was some heckling mixed in with the applause from Republican voters. The reception on the right and left to the latest stunt has been cooler still. Turns out some Texans don’t like getting jerked around.