Photograph: Jay Janner/AP
When Donald Trump welcomed Texas governor Greg Abbott to the White House in May, the US president hailed his fellow Republican as “one of the great governors” and lauded the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and predicted boom times ahead.
“When you look at the job he’s done in Texas, I rely on his judgment,” Trump said.
Seven weeks later, as the state once again closes businesses with virus cases skyrocketing and hospitals running out of intensive-care beds, Texas indeed appears to be a model: for how to squander a hopeful position through premature reopening, ignoring inconvenient data and fighting party-political turf wars.
Greg Abbott adjusts his mask after giving an update on 16 June 2020, in Houston. Photograph: Ricardo B Brazziell/AP
On 7 May, the day of Abbott’s visit to Washington, the state reported 968 new cases among its 29 million residents. Daily numbers have soared this week – to 5,996 on 25 June – prompting doctors in Houston to sound the alarm.
On Friday, Abbott ordered a halt to Texan experiences such as bar-hopping along Austin’s raucous Sixth Street and floating lazily on an inner tube along a tree-lined river. Bars – which were open at up to 50% capacity – must close again, restaurants must reduce from 75% to 50% capacity and rafting operations must close.
Harris County, which includes Houston, moved to its highest Covid-19 threat level, signalling a “severe and uncontrolled” outbreak.
“The harsh truth is that our current infection rate is on pace to overwhelm our hospitals in the very near future,” Lina Hidalgo, the county judge, said at a press conference on Friday. “We opened too quickly.”
It was not her choice. Hidalgo, a Democrat, issued a mandatory mask order in April that was swiftly rendered toothless by Abbott, who said masks were strongly recommended but local authorities could not impose penalties for non-compliance.
Abbott said in the Oval Office that Texas’ phased reopening was based on data-driven strategies that would reduce the spread of the virus and enable the economy to recover. But he was cherry-picking numbers; the statistics did not meet federal criteria for relaxing a lockdown and Texas’ per-capita testing rate is among the worst in the nation.
That same day, Abbott diluted his own authority in order to mollify his conservative base. He eliminated jail as a punishment for violating his coronavirus restrictions, in a response to right-wing outrage over the imprisonment of a Dallas hair salon owner who had illegally reopened, refused to close again and was sentenced to seven days behind bars for contempt of court.
“Abbott tries to play the moderate but in reality he’s almost on a leash with the extreme right,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Houston-based Democratic strategist.
Tameez said that Abbott and Trump have sown confusion through mixed messages. “We’re not going to be able to make policy unless we root it in facts and science,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to make it through this on soundbites and political positioning.”
Republicans control Texas politics at state level largely thanks to support from white rural and suburban voters. But Democrats dominate in the biggest cities, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. This has long led to policy conflicts, with the state overriding municipalities on issues from banning plastic bags to immigration enforcement. Greg Casar, an Austin city council member, said that Abbott placed appeasing his core voters ahead of the health of urban communities of color.
“The governor at the very beginning of this chose to prioritize politics over public health,” Casar said, noting the state’s attempt to suspend abortions. He added that if cases continue to spike, Austin would probably pass laws that go beyond Abbott’s limits, risking a court fight.
“The overwhelming majority of our hospitalizations are Latino and of course black Austinites are being hospitalized at a disproportionate rate as well,” Casar said. “Generations of racist practice and policies are really exposing those communities at the moment no matter how much we try to mitigate it.” Austin was blocked earlier this month from implementing mandatory paid sick leave after a long-running legal challenge backed by leading Texas Republicans.
“Hopefully the leadership of this state now knows that they’ve got to put public health first, we’ve got to flatten the curve all the way,” said Royce West, a state senator in Dallas and Democratic US senate primary candidate. “Leaders in this state have got to look at whether or not what the model was in New York should be replicated here.” That would underline the dramatic reversal in fortunes from the spring, when New York was the national epicentre – but severe actions seem unlikely.
Dan Patrick, the 70-year-old Texas lieutenant governor, declared in March that he was willing to risk death to help the economy.
On Friday, Patrick dismissed the idea of a fresh lockdown and accused hospitals of providing misleading information. “Yes, positive rates are up, mostly young people, they’re not dying,” he told Fox News. “We’re still moving forward, with a slight pause.”
Nor is the pandemic causing state leaders to reconsider their most cherished policy goals. As hospitals scramble to find more ICU beds, Texas, the state with the highest number of uninsured people, filed a brief on Thursday urging the US supreme court to scrap the Affordable Care Act, which would threaten access to healthcare for millions.