A singular figure in Texas’ coronavirus collapse: Greg Abbott leads his state in alarming direction

The governor dithered, using language that experts said confused the public and undermined the health mission

Published July 13, 2020 6:30AM (EDT)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Lynda M. Gonzalez-Pool/Getty Images)
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Lynda M. Gonzalez-Pool/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on The Texas Tribune.

One evening last week, after making one of his most consequential decisions yet in Texas' response to the coronavirus, Gov. Greg Abbott settled in for his pandemic routine: a rapid-fire round of local TV interviews from his campaign's satellite studio in Austin.

In the hours since he'd issued a statewide mask mandate, Abbott had taken a familiar shellacking from both sides of the aisle: the Democrats who had wanted the mask requirement weeks earlier, and some Republicans who had not wanted it at all.

An anchor with KIII in Corpus Christi offered a measure of sympathy.

"Governor, I must tell you I wouldn't trade jobs with you for anything," he said, drawing chuckles from Abbott.

"You articulate it well," Abbott later said. "I get it from both sides."

Four months of unprecedented emergency have forced the cautious, measured governor into a leadership test like no other. While he has steered the state through major crises before — Hurricane Harvey, multiple mass shootings — no other has required the sustained, high-stakes decision-making that this one has, leaving Abbott with countless, constant choices that have immediate impact on millions of Texans. Abbott is leaning hard on his executive power and a small circle of advisers as the biennial Legislature remains on the sidelines.

If the virus has presented a leadership test, Abbott's metrics are getting worse. COVID-19 has already killed at least 3,013 Texans and is spreading rapidly, infecting new people and filling hospitals with the sick. Hospitals are beginning to get overwhelmed. Despite an early reopening, the state's economy continues to struggle, with an unemployment rate in double digits and budgets facing major shortfalls. Even by the metrics Abbott has said he is focused on — the percentage of COVID-19 patients who require hospitalization, and the share of tests coming back positive — Texas is headed in an alarming direction. While Texas at first fared better than many other states, it is now a national hotspot.

For most of the pandemic, Abbott has been met with persistent criticism from Democrats and a small but vocal faction of his GOP, but lately his Republican skeptics have begun to grow in number.

Critics point to ever-changing, sometimes serially confusing top-down guidance. Facing down a public health emergency, the governor has more than once reversed himself, making virus mitigation decisions that some say came too late and others say should not have been made at all.

Abbott's defenders praise him for remaining characteristically calm during a dark hour for the state. Democrats plead with him to act on the advice of public health experts, many of whom urge further shutdown of the economy, and to allow local leaders to issue stricter guidelines than the statewide regulations. A growing group in his own party questions both his choices and his authority to make them.

Politically, Abbott — who does not face re-election until 2022 — has little to fear on his own. But he sits atop a Texas GOP that has plenty to worry about in November, with polls showing Joe Biden in striking distance of President Donald Trump and Democrats making a massive push farther down the ballot.

Abbott entered the pandemic with plenty of political capital as the state's most popular Republican leader. While Abbott maintained a generally high approval rating during the first few months of the pandemic, his rating fell seven percentage points from April to June in University of Texas polling.

The second-term governor, who often seems reluctant to take political risks, is forging his legacy through a crisis that he is singularly positioned to address. With the Legislature out of session, and after he limited the power of the state's mayors and county judges, Abbott has almost complete authority to make critical decisions about the state's response. That means he owns the decisions that lead to lost jobs and lost lives.

The summer will prove a critical chapter: Can he change the state's course, or will it careen further toward disaster?

"There's so much at stake here — we've got to get it right. We don't have a whole lot of time," said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, a nurse and leader in the state's minority party. "And I don't believe the governor has shown the leadership we need. I realize it's a tough job, but the buck stops with him. The Legislature is not in session. He's the one that's running the ship."

"We took a leap of faith"

In a public health crisis, government at all levels has a role to play: federal health agencies issuing guidance; states wrangling data; mayors and city councils communicating with their constituencies.

But Abbott came to the public health crisis with an already-tense relationship with local leaders. The GOP-dominated state government he heads clashes routinely with Democratic leaders in the state's biggest cities and counties, over issues ranging from property taxes to paid sick leave requirements. As the coronavirus began to spread in China and then to Europe, the governor was bickering with Austin's leaders about people experiencing homelessness.

Still, in March, as cases of the new coronavirus began to pop up in Texas cities, Abbott was uncharacteristically deferential to local officials.

Amid calls for a statewide stay-at-home order, a spokesman for the governor said in mid-March that cities and counties "have done a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities."Abbott ordered the state's bars and restaurants to close, but resisted calls for a more comprehensive directive that Texans stay at home, insisting "local officials have the authority to implement more strict standards. … I would applaud them for doing so."

By the end of the month, though, with case counts surpassing 3,000 and states across the country battering down, Abbott finally took statewide action: He ordered Texans to remain in place except for essential activities like grocery shopping.

Was this the stay-at-home order Democrats and health experts had been agitating for? He didn't call it that.

Asked to clarify, the governor dithered, using language that experts said confused the public and undermined the seriousness of the situation.

"Well candidly, when people talk in terms of shelter in place, what shelter in place really means as a term of art, would mean that wherever you may be at a particular time, you need to take shelter immediately right there. Whether you are at your home or some other location or in a roadside ditch, wherever you may be, you're supposed to take shelter because of something like a tornado would be coming. ... This is not a stay-at-home strategy. A stay-at-home strategy would mean that you have to stay at home, you cannot leave home under any circumstances," he told reporters.

Whatever it was called, experts agree it helped deter the spread of the virus. During the month of April, cases were on a steady but manageable rise, with Texas typically adding fewer than 1,000 new cases each day. Other mitigation measures, like barring elective medical procedures, kept hospitals freed up for a crush of patients that didn't materialize at the time. Abbott mostly steered clear of the culture wars that emerged, leaving Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to defend a ban on nearly all abortions.

But many in Abbott's own party were growing restless. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was making national headlines for telling Fox News "there are more important things than living." The president had said he wanted the economy "opened up and raring to go" by Easter.

No sooner had Abbott shut the state down than he began to talk about reopening. He named a "strike force" of business leaders to advise him on his reopening plan, along with a group of medical advisers including Dr. John Zerwas, the executive vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System, state health Commissioner John Hellerstedt and Mark McClellan, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Abbott announced businesses would reopen in phases starting May 1, with the second phase coming as early as May 18 if all went well.

"We need to see two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19," he said.

He also laid out tough enforcement measures — fines of up to $1,000, jail sentences of up to 180 days.

Experts praised Abbott's plan for its promise to open businesses slowly, in measured phases. But they noted that unlike in some states, there were few specific health metrics that controlled further reopenings. Experts warned that the pandemic could spiral out of control.

Just hours after he had promised a measured approach, the governor hinted to a Houston TV station that he might allow more businesses to reopen even before the May 18 date some experts had cautioned was too early.

On the evening of April 30, with restaurants and malls set to reopen the next day, Texas reported its highest death toll yet: 50 people. But Abbott remained cautiously optimistic, pointing to two key metrics — hospitalization rate, the share of COVID-19 patients who required hospital care; and positivity rate, the percentage of coronavirus tests that showed presence of the virus — which remained in a manageable range. The governor had made clear from the start that cases would rise when the state reopened; his goal was not to prevent all spread, but to open slowly enough that hospitals could care for all the people who fell ill.

As Democrats and public health experts warned he was moving too fast, many in Abbott's own party urged him to move yet more quickly. Restaurants were open in limited capacity, but not bars or hair salons. What was the difference, critics demanded, between a waiter serving a meal and a bartender pouring a cocktail? Two hardline conservative lawmakers got haircuts at an illegally open salon in Houston, daring the governor to insist on the penalties he'd warned about. In Dallas, a salon owner named Shelley Luther earned praise from Fox News, hundreds of thousands in donations from like-minded shutdown skeptics and a weeklong jail term after she repeatedly defied court orders to close her business until state law permitted her to open.

The governor backpedaled rapidly. He revised his coronavirus executive orders so that violators could not be forced to serve jail time. His team contacted Luther — not to order her to close, but to seek her advice on how salons could open safely and soon. Abbott said salons could reopen May 8, more than a week before his target date for phase two. The slow reopening he promised had begun to speed up already — and the penalties that were supposed to ensure compliance were beginning to disappear.

Heeding Luther's example, and watching their own bottom lines plummet amid the shutdown, bar owners started to wonder about their own strategy.

"This one lady did it, and she got a lot of attention and now all the salons are open," bar owner Emil Bragdon told the Tribune in May. "Is that something we have to do? Because if we have to do that, we'll do it."

The economic advisors on Abbott's strike force began to press for bars to open, too. After "a substantial amount of conversation" with medical advisors, Abbott's team agreed that the bars could open so long as they followed social distancing protocols, Zerwas recalled.

It would prove to be a major misstep — one Abbott said he regrets.

Young people crowded into bars, and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission was slow to enforce regulations or yank licenses. Cases began to rise among young people. Weeks later, with cases surging, Abbott shut the bars back down.

"Clearly what happened is the bars, when they opened, did not comply. In hindsight, it would've been quite a challenge for them to comply," Zerwas said. "We took a leap of faith on that."

"It's not a scavenger hunt"

Meanwhile, Abbott's tentative truce with local leaders was eroding, and the usual antagonism reemerged.

As Texas remains a hotspot for the virus, local leaders are pleading with him to either order more shutdowns or allow them to do it for their own communities.

Even some fellow Republicans, like Lubbock Mayor Dan Pope, have criticized Abbott for tying their hands with his statewide order. In an interview, Pope acknowledged it has been a little tough to keep up with the state's evolving rules. But, Pope said, "we're in unprecedented times."

"I know how difficult COVID-19 has been locally and I can only imagine how difficult it is at the state level," Pope said, describing his city's relationship with the state as "very strong" at this point.

Clay Jenkins, the Democratic county judge in Dallas, said when he was navigating fears of an Ebola outbreak in 2014, he was in touch with former Gov. Rick Perry — cellphone to cellphone — at least once every day. This emergency has been different from any other he's weathered, Jenkins said, because the virus became politicized.

In this public health emergency, local officials have been left to guess at Abbott's intentions. Jenkins said he hasn't spoken to Abbott in more than a month.

Nowhere has the friction between state and local leaders been more visible than on the issue of masks.

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending masks in April, Abbott encouraged Texans to wear masks, but often appeared in public without wearing one himself. And when Abbott allowed businesses to reopen May 1, he stripped local leaders like mayors and county judges of the ability to mandate stronger restrictions, including the wearing of masks. His statewide standards were not a floor but a ceiling.

Local leaders in big cities like Houston and Dallas began to chafe under the state's firm hand, agitating to impose the mask requirements that public health experts call essential. Abbott made it clear mask mandates would not be acceptable — and the Texas attorney general threatened lawsuits against cities and counties that passed them.

"We strongly recommend that everyone wear a mask," Abbott said in May. "However, it's not a mandate. And we'll make clear that no jurisdiction can impose any type of penalty or fine for anyone not wearing a mask."

That push and pull continued for weeks as case counts began to surge following the Memorial Day Weekend. The virus began to spread more rapidly in Texas than ever before, a trend Abbott attributed in part to young people gathering at the bars he had opened. For weeks, the governor remained optimistic, pointing to hospitals' "abundant" capacity to serve the sick even as their ranks began to grow exponentially.

In June, with the virus rocketing through San Antonio, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff tried a workaround: Instead of ordering residents to wear masks, he required businesses to require them.

To the surprise of local officials, Abbott praised Wolff. He "finally figured that out," Abbott said.

The riddle of the mask mandate earned Abbott immediate criticism: Either the governor had been intentionally misleading or confusing to the point of negligence, allowing local leaders to stumble in the dark for weeks.

"I thought, my God, it's not a scavenger hunt," Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine, said of the mask order. "Have you listened to the physicians who said that masks help? If you did, then you would've announced this yourself much earlier. You don't hide important facts about protecting people's health."

That same week, Abbott acknowledged that the virus was spreading at an "unacceptable rate." Days later he paused the state's reopening process, closed bars again, and told Texans "there's never a reason for you to have to leave your home."

Still, he left open the restaurants many Texans were leaving their homes for. And that weekend he appeared before a gathering of hundreds at a Dallas church. Another featured guest: Mike Pence, the vice president.

The next week, Abbott reversed himself again: Under mounting political pressure, and watching the exponential rise of case counts, Abbott issued a mask order for most of the state. Accompanying it was the fine — after a warning — that he had previously prohibited local officials from issuing.

To public health experts, and to many of the governor's critics on the left, it was the right decision, but it had come far too late.

Jenkins, who was the first in the state to issue a stay-at-home mandate for his county, said he expects that pattern to repeat itself.

"The crush of new cases and the continual unfortunate bad news that we're getting every day will force the governor to listen to the doctors' recommendations," Jenkins said. "The key thing is how fast will that happen? Because every day that we wait is more damage to our economy, more people getting sick, and the longer it's gonna take to pull out of the tail spin."

While some Republican state lawmakers have become more vocal against Abbott's response, the governor still has defenders in the Legislature.

"We have a Governor who uses facts, not fear, to drive decision-making, and that's never been a more critical leadership attribute than during this challenging season," state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, told The Texas Tribune.

But some conservatives question Abbott's authority to issue sweeping disaster orders. At least six county GOPs have censured him for his handling of the pandemic, including those in Montgomery and Denton Counties, two of the party's biggest strongholds. Many of those resolutions have called for delegates to the state GOP convention to consider a broader censure of the governor — a striking but largely symbolic move.

Republican lawmakers have begun to agitate for more say in the state's response, with some pushing for a special session of the Legislature to consider coronavirus responses.

"It should not be the sole responsibility of one person to manage all of the issues related to a disaster that has no end in sight," state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, wrote last week.

Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.

Disclosure: The University of Texas System and Rice University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here. 

By Emma Platoff

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Coronavirus Covid-19 Greg Abbott Texas