The pressure on Governor Greg Abbott to defy the coronavirus and reopen Texas for business had been building in the right wing of the state Republican Party all week.
On Monday, Midland oilman, religious conservative, and campaign financier Tim Dunn published an open letter to President Trump asking that Americans be allowed to decide the best precautions for themselves, and arguing that state and local governments “are using wrong and confusing data to strip Americans of basic liberties.”
On Wednesday, former state senator Don Huffines complained in an op-ed that Abbott had “effectively shut down the tenth-largest economy in the world” because he had not “articulated a plan” and had allowed “local leaders to fill the void created by his lack of leadership,” referring to the mayors and county judges who issued stay-at-home orders long before the governor issued a statewide directive.
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And on Thursday, protesters outside the Governor’s Mansion demanded that Abbott reopen the economy ASAP. One woman brought along homemade signs that alluded to the Alamo, and the leader of its defense under siege, in demanding that Abbott reopen the state’s economy. “Do you think Col. Travis would be afraid of the coronavirus?”
On Friday, Abbott began to give these activists what they wanted. At a press conference, he said he was taking steps to reopen the Texas economy, even as the state trails the nation in COVID-19 testing per capita, and yet continues to see hundreds of new infections each day. He tapped Huffines’s elder brother, James, to head a “strike force” to determine how to safely reboot the state economy in upcoming weeks. The strike force advisory committee is largely a who’s who of Republican business executives, with several token Democrats thrown in, including former state senator Kirk Watson and Alonzo Cantu, who owns major investments in Lower Rio Grande Valley construction projects and the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg.
James Huffines is an old school, business-oriented Republican of demonstrated competence, not a tea party type like his brother. I’ve known him since he was the appointments secretary for Governor Bill Clements in the eighties. He has served on the University of Texas board of regents since Governor Rick Perry first appointed him in 2003 and is chairman of the Central and South Texas region of PlainsCapital Bank, based in Austin.
The problem is not so much that Abbott has named an advisory committee but that he has again found a way to deflect responsibility before taking action. Just as he let mayors and county judges do the hard work of shutting the state down to stop the spread of COVID-19, he is now hoping the strike force will help him balance competing demands for fighting the virus and getting Texans back to work. Abbott put his toe into the water on Friday, but put off big decisions until April 27, saying he wanted to be guided by data, doctors, and the advice of his strike force.
In the meantime, state parks will reopen Monday with restrictions on the number of visitors in a gathering (no more than five) and a requirement that everyone wear a mask. School classrooms will remain closed until the end of this term, although distance learning online will continue. And his restriction on elective surgery will be eased next week.
But when journalists asked him whether that also mean relaxing his ban on abortions, Abbott couldn’t help himself. His first reaction was to say, “ultimately, obviously that will be a decision for courts to make.” Lawsuits challenging his original ban have been bouncing back and forth between federal judges in Austin and on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Abbott’s original order suspending elective medical procedures was intended to ensure that certain hospital equipment was available for an expected surge of COVID-19 patients, but on Friday he said it was clear that hospitals can handle some elective procedures. But not abortions.
Politically, Abbott has boxed himself in by using COVID-19 to justify a ban on abortions. If he ever relaxes the ban as part of an executive order authorizing all elective procedures, he risks alienating some of his right-wing supporters. On the other hand, the governor generally tries to avoid taking unnecessary political risks. If he continues to bar abortions when most other elective procedures are allowed, he would be seen by many as acting unilaterally on a constitutionally protected matter.
The governor also eased restrictions on retailers by saying they will be allowed to conduct sales online with curbside pickup. Starting April 24, Texans can buy online and pick up purchases at the door. How much that will help revive the economy is difficult to determine, especially since some big-box stores and liquor shops have already have been offering curbside pickup. Without providing details of the limitations on its home page, the Texas Department of State Health Services now boldly states, “Texas Re-Opens Retail Businesses.”
“In opening Texas, we must be guided by data and by doctors,” Abbott said at his press conference, promising new “massive amounts of testing capability” for the virus by this month’s end. That’s encouraging, but Texas has a long way to go and Abbott was vague about the details. Texas has the lowest per-capita testing for the virus in the country, according to the COVID Tracking Project. As of noon Friday, there had been 169,536 tests administered with 17,371 cases of COVID-19 reported. The trend line for cumulative cases and death continues upward. Pressed by journalists to offer details about the ramped-up testing, Abbott demurred, saying only, “It will be quite a bit.”
Abbott also tacitly acknowledged that Texans will continue to get sick and die of the virus when the economy is reopened. He promised that enhanced testing and containment strategies would head off the risk of a resurgence in COVID-19. “When it does arise, we will be able to contain it,” he said. If there were dangerous outbreaks in certain communities, “pockets of the economy may need to be shut down.”
We are at a critical juncture in the coronavirus pandemic. The nation’s top medical experts agree that containing the virus means continued restrictions on activities and requirements for social distancing. But with the state’s unemployment fund running low and more than a million claims filed in the past thirty days, desperation is setting in for individuals, families, and small businesses looking at potential financial ruin.
In the middle of all of this, Texas has a governor with a reputation for wanting to avoid the blame when things go wrong and for wanting to appease all factions of his Republican party. The next several weeks will determine whether Greg Abbott will be the leader Texas badly needs right now.