HOUSTON — For one brief, delusional moment in early April, I felt a smidgen of support for my governor, Greg Abbott. Sure, part of me thought his plan to reopen the state after just a few weeks of lockdown was cuckoo. Medical experts warned of a surge in coronavirus cases if Texas did just that.
But Texas is a big state, I told myself, and why should people out in Mentone or Daisetta have to close up shop when the hot spots were many miles down the highway? And yes, I knew the governor’s fevered, ferocious fealty to President Trump made his push suspect. But really, what kind of person would put politics over the safety of his constituents?
It wasn’t as if Mr. Abbott had done nothing. He issued his version of a statewide stay at home order on March 31, following in the footsteps of brave(r) local officials. Uncharacteristically for a Republican state official perpetually at war with the Democratic cities, he allowed the likes of my Houston mayor, Sylvester Turner, and the Harris County judge, Lina Hidalgo, to use their best judgment when it came to protecting public health — that is, until they tried to enforce mask-wearing, which, to Mr. Abbott’s way of thinking, was an infringement of our treasured individual rights.
Maybe you recall the hair-curling fiasco of early May, when a judge sentenced a Dallas area beauty salon owner named Shelley Luther to jail for contempt of court after she reopened in defiance of Mr. Abbott’s shutdown, which included jail terms for violators.
Ms. Luther became a folk hero thanks partly to opportunistic patriots like Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. Mr. Abbott contradicted his own order, demanding Ms. Luther’s freedom and insisting that “throwing Texans in jail who have had their businesses shut down through no fault of their own is nonsensical, and I will not allow it to happen.”
But while New York and Washington were in crisis, the number of cases and deaths here remained remarkably low. Maybe Texas was being spared because of a lack of density in our cities or because people drove alone in their cars instead of cramming into subways. Maybe our already rising temperatures were killing off the virus.
Maybe, in contrast to the yahoo stereotype, most Texans were wearing masks, socially distancing and washing their hands and so had actually headed the virus off at the pass, or dodged the bullet, or whatever people think we like to say down here.
And maybe for those reasons, Mr. Abbott became infatuated with the idea that Texas would be among the first states to reopen. As he said, Texans needed to get back to work. That was indisputable. The food bank near my house was already overwhelmed with the unemployed and hungry.
Yes, Dr. Peter Hotez, Houston’s internationally known virus expert, warned of the dangers of opening early, but what did he know? The guy wears a bow tie.
For a short time, then, I wondered if Mr. Abbott had been right. His three-step reopening plan sensible enough, with Phase 1 allowing restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters and beauty salons to operate at 25 percent capacity.
It was life-affirming to see all those “we are open!” banners flapping in the breeze — to go out to a new restaurant and see all the folks inappropriately shaking hands and hugging one another. I even got a pedicure, protected from my technician with a plexiglass shield etched with the words “Customer Safety First.”
On Memorial Day, the Galveston beaches were packed like Carnival in Rio. And out in rural Texas, folks who had no choice were working away in meat-processing plants. Businesses like Target and Wal-Mart welcomed shoppers without masks as if it were Black Friday.
As we now know, that was then. “Ten days away,” a friend who works for Judge Hidalgo told me the night before the June 2 march for George Floyd downtown, when police helicopters were circling over our socially distanced dinner party — 10 days before we would start to see the cases really spike.
That date coincided with the arrival of Mr. Abbott’s Phase 3, which allowed many businesses to reopen at 75 percent capacity on June 12. Shortly after that, the numbers exploded.
The governor knew better than to blame better testing for the increase, because we don’t have enough testing. Instead, he blamed those rowdy millennials: “There are certain counties where a majority of the people who are tested positive in that county are under the age of 30, and this typically results from people going to bars,” he said.
But, no worries, the governor added; Texas still has plenty of hospital beds. And today, we have more than 130,000 cases, up from over 60,000 at the end of May.
And so, here we are, with a jittery populace and the Texas Medical Center’s coronavirus website competing with TikTok. I.C.U.s in Houston are at 97 percent capacity, with “unsustainable surge capacity” predicted for hospital beds in late July. If “this trajectory persists,” Dr. Hotez tweeted, “Houston would become the worst-affected city in the U.S.” He added that it would “maybe rival what we’re seeing now in Brazil.”
Still, taking his cues from the president, Mr. Abbott refused to issue a statewide mask-wearing order. His latest explanation is that he actually had a plan to require masks all along — he just put the onus on business and store owners to require mask wearing instead of a bullying state government. That Mr. Abbott never stressed this brilliant solution in public was beside the point. It wasn’t his fault that no local officials caught on until this week.
“Earlier today the county judge in Bexar County finally figured that out,” Mr. Abbott said after the judge mandated that businesses require their workers and customers to generally wear masks in the county, which includes San Antonio, last week. “They finally read what we had written.” This is government as a game of Clue: Governor Abbott in the Statehouse with the masked mask order.
Now with the numbers climbing, Mr. Abbott has taken the bold step of hitting the pause button on future reopenings, allowing local officials to limit outdoor events to 100 people (down from 500), closing bars and suspending elective surgeries to save potentially needed bed space. But mainly his advice is just to stay put, which has become easier since New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are now requiring Texans to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
“We want to make sure that everyone reinforces the best safe practices of wearing a mask, hand sanitization, maintaining safe distance, but importantly, because the spread is so rampant right now, there’s never a reason for you to have to leave your home,” Mr. Abbott said in a recent interview. “Unless you do need to go out, the safest place for you is at your home.”
In other words, we are all in this together. But we are also completely and totally on our own.
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