How Texas Blew It

Coronavirus cases are surging and ICUs are almost full. What happened?

Greg Abbott and Donald Trump in the Oval Office.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks with President Donald Trump about restarting business during the coronavirus pandemic at the White House on May 7. Abbott is now ordering bars closed and increasing restrictions on restaurants. Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Every day for the past two weeks, Texas has set a new record for coronavirus hospitalizations. Since the state started keeping track of this metric back in April, this number hadn’t surpassed 2,000. Now, the number of hospitalizations is over 5,000. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Ross Ramsey, the executive editor of the Texas Tribune, about how the state reached such a grim milestone. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: I want to focus a little bit on Houston because that’s where so many new cases are cropping up right now. Harris County has this odometer it’s developed to track the coronavirus threat level. And this weekend, it moved it to red, which was the highest it could go, right?

Ross Ramsey: It’s like the old thermometer they had after 9/11 to judge the threat level. The county judge there, Lina Hidalgo, wanted this in place so that you could quickly communicate what the situation was. They’re looking at the number of ICU beds that are available. We’re on the 16th or 17th day of record levels of new hospitalizations in Texas, and Houston has been feeling the brunt of that. So that’s what they’re telling their citizens: This is very dangerous right now. We’re on high alert. Meanwhile, you’re hearing from state officials and federal officials something a little bit different. And it’s confusing.

I’m glad we’re talking about Lina Hidalgo, because I feel like she’s an interesting character. Why has this county judge emerged as such a central figure?

Unincorporated Harris County, the part of Harris County that’s not in the city of Houston or any of the other little cities around it, actually has more population than Houston does. The coronavirus doesn’t know boundaries or respect them. And the person who is at the executive position over the greatest number of people in that area, other than a governor, is the county judge. So she’s been really, really active.

She’s really young, and she speaks Spanish. I think she’s 29?

And you’ve never seen her in public since this started without a mask on, which is really interesting. She doesn’t even take the mask off when she’s at the mic or at the podium. She’s been very, very consistent in her messaging. She’s done all the things she’s telling people to do, which isn’t true of a lot of other leaders.

You mentioned the masks. Masks are where she really started to tangle with the state government. She tried to require them for people back in April, right? What happened when she did that?

We ran into this civil libertarian streak in Texas. A lot of people rankled at the idea that the government was telling them they had to wear a mask to go out. So a couple of governments, including Harris County, said, Well, we’re going to require it. And the governor said, I’m going to have a state executive order that blocks local governments, cities, and counties from imposing fines or penalties for people who are not wearing masks. People ought to wear masks, but we’re not going to require it.

The governor is getting a lot of pressure from the conservative end of his party to put personal freedoms ahead of restrictions. And as a political matter, he’s tried to straddle that. But it means that he has to tell the county judges they can’t do the things that they’ve been trying to do, and now that we’re looking at the numbers in Texas, the county judges have been on the right track. If they had been able to do what they were trying to do, we might not have the numbers that we have now. We might not be in the crisis situation that we’re approaching now.

I went back to some video from May of Gov. Greg Abbott meeting with President Donald Trump. And it’s weird to watch now because it feels like he’s taking a victory lap.

Coming out of March, we were slow to put restrictions in place in Texas, but we got restrictions in place. And by the beginning of April, they had things pretty locked down. And by the time you got to the end of April, it was actually looking pretty good. Then they took their foot off the brake. And not just that, but they hit the accelerator. The governor came out in late April and said we’re gonna have some phased-in reopenings. They started to do that, and the pressure to do that more quickly mounted very fast. And so the governor really sped up this phasing out of the restrictions.

They were looking at something that they call the positivity rate, which is the ratio of positive coronavirus tests to all tests taken. If that’s over 10 percent, you’ve got problems. I think the latest number that I saw was 13 percent. We haven’t seen 10 percent since early April. So you see how this curve is going. About halfway through May, you started seeing the governor come into press conferences with a mask on, which we hadn’t been seeing before. We still haven’t seen the lieutenant governor with a mask on. The governor closed all the bars on Friday. He told restaurants to dial it back. And he kind of found a way for local officials to require people to wear masks. He said you can’t require an individual to wear a mask and you can’t fine him or jail him if they don’t, but you can require a business to require employees and customers to wear a mask.

It just seems really complicated because it’s relying on a lot of individuals to do the work that you might expect the government to do.

Part of the problem here is that they’ve worked themselves into a place where enforcement is very difficult. We had this famous incident where hair salons and barbershops were told not to open as part of the April restrictions. There was a hairstylist named Shelley Luther in the suburbs of Dallas, who basically said, I’m going to open my salon, and figuratively raised her middle finger.

They took her to court. And the judge said: Look, the law here is clear. The governor’s order is that you can’t open. And she said if you put that in a court order, I will defy it. That’s straight-up contempt of court. So he put her in jail. It became this big symbolic freedom thing. The very conservative lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, paid her bail to get her out of jail. And the governor at that point said, I’m not going to allow local authorities, cities, and counties, to fine or jail people for violating my executive orders. It’s like he removed his own teeth.

The problem now is that the governor can make an order. And people can say, Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. After his last order on bars, the mayor of Abilene said, We’re not going to close our bars in Abilene. That’s a heck of a deal when a governor orders something and the mayor says that we’re not going to do that. He’s already removed his ability to do anything about it.

Are people seeing Abbott’s moves here as an admission of failure?

He actually said that about the bars. He was on television in El Paso. And they asked him: Would you have done anything different if you were doing this over again? He said, Yeah, I don’t think I would have opened the bars. That’s as close as he’s gotten to a Hey, I screwed up here.

I want to return to a completely separate agent of chaos, which is the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick. And in Texas, the lieutenant governor has a lot of power, and he’s more conservative than your governor. Just last week, he was going on Fox News and saying: Listen, we’re not going to reverse ourselves. We’re not going to go backward. Can you talk about Patrick and his role here?

He’s really the political leader of the most conservative part of the Republican Party. He’s a former radio talk show host in Houston. You see him a lot on cable TV. People all over the country know him from earlier in the pandemic, when he suggested that he would rather have some people die than tank the economy to meet the coronavirus. He’s been very defensive of the people who are ignoring these kinds of restrictions and orders.

So has the governor lost control of his lieutenant governor?

I don’t think he ever had control of his lieutenant governor. In Texas, you don’t run as a ticket—they’re individually elected. Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott are representatives of different parts of the Republican Party. Abbott’s really the most powerful Republican in office, but he’s not the most adept Republican in office. That’s probably Dan Patrick. When you get long-lasting debates like the one over how to meet the coronavirus, and one speaker is Patrick and one speaker is Abbott, Patrick’s more consistent, he’s more effective, and he carries the day in a way that constrains what Greg Abbott’s able to do.

Is Texas a warning to a state like New York that’s lifting restrictions?

I think you have to lift restrictions with the other numbers in mind. There’s a balance here. A ravished economy or a wrecked social structure is as damaging and as unhealthy as this disease. You’ve got to balance these things in some way. But we keep swinging back-and-forth.

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