What Went Wrong in Texas

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S1: Every day for the last two weeks, Texas has set a new record for daily Corona virus hospitalizations since the state started keeping track of this metric. Back in April. This number hasn’t surpassed 2000 a day until this month, June. Now, the number of hospitalizations, it’s over 5000. I’ve seen videos of these lines for testing in Houston.

S2: Yeah, the lines for testing have gotten crazy. In fact, we’ve been doing some stories on that.

S1: Ross Ramsey is the executive editor of the Texas Tribune.

S2: They don’t have enough testing to test the people who all want to be tested. If that makes sense. And so you can sit in line for three or four hours and then sometimes you have to wait 10 days to get the results. So you could go through almost an entire cycle of having the disease and getting rid of the disease. Not quite, but almost an entire cycle before your test results come back.

S1: And Ross says that for some people, these lines, they’re the only clear sign of a pandemic. Lines to get tested, lines at the big box store. And if you can’t see the virus, can’t feel its impact. What do you do about it?

S2: Succah douget, neighbors at our AURIN Mass. I mean, you know, when you’re just outside, you know, a lot of people don’t wear masks. They have them, but they don’t wear them outside. But when you go into, like a line at a grocery store, you’ll see somebody, you know, like, what the hell?

S3: What is July 4th gonna look like in Texas this week?

S2: You know, that’s a great question that a lot of the current surge in cases is attributed, you know, at least initially, to Memorial Day.

S4: Memorial Day was a little bit crazy. You got pictures of beaches and pictures of the parks and pictures of people out and about and doing the kind of crowd things that they’d been avoiding since the corona virus really kind of came on the radar. So the question on the July 4th weekend is how are people going to act and are they going to be out and about? And how does that what does that do to the surge that we’re already seeing in the numbers for Kobe?

S5: Today on the show, will Texas be able to contain the Corona virus and what will it take? Looking back at how the state reached such a grim milestone offers a little insight into the kinds of challenges Texas faces now. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S3: I want to focus a little bit on Houston, because I feel like that’s where so many new cases are cropping up right now. The county, Harris County that Houston’s in, they actually have this odometer they’ve developed to sort of track the corona virus threat level. And this weekend, they moved it to red, which was the highest it could go. Right.

S2: It’s a little like the old thermometer that they had after 9/11 that the Department of Homeland Security had, where you would judge a threat level. And the county judge there, Aleena Hidalgo, wanted this in place so that you could quickly communicate, you know, what the situation was, what’s what’s the trouble? At any given point, they’ve been at orange for a little bit. Now they’re at red and red is basically stay at home, put on your mask, wash your hands. And it’s designed to try to change people’s behavior. What do you mean by that? Well, you know, I mean, they’re looking at the numbers of ICU beds that are taken, the number of ICU beds that are available. What’s happened with hospitalizations were on the 16th or 17th day of record levels of new hospitalizations in Texas. And Houston has been feeling the brunt of that. She’s looking at all these numbers. Everybody’s looking at the same numbers. And in Houston, in the local sense, she’s looking at those numbers and she’s saying move the dial to red. So that’s what they’re telling their citizens. You know, be careful. Watch out. 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. That’s not necessarily situation red. It’s like, you know, you really ought to be careful out there. But it’s not the same thing. So if you live in Houston, Texas, you hear one thing from the governor, you hear another thing from the county judge. And it’s confusing.

S3: Yeah. I mean, I want to focus on Houston, too, because it’s a major medical center. It has a lot of hospital beds. So for them to say we’re really feeling the brunt of it means that things are quite bad.

S2: Well, right. I mean, you know, they can they can put in new ICU beds. In fact, they’re putting in emergency beds at the NRG Stadium, which is where the Houston Texans play. So they’re putting ICU units in there in tents on the field, you know, like you’ve seen in other communities. And right now, all of the projections are that they can handle this. But they’re having to do extraordinary things. And all of those things strain your hospital staff. And, you know, the governor has put out an order for Harris and three other counties to stop doing elective surgeries. You know, I’m hearing mixed reports from hospitals on whether they’re actually doing that or not. So part of the reason that people like Leona Hidalgo move their little speedometer to read and say red alert is so people will change their behavior, stay home, put on masks, maybe slow this enough that you don’t keep a spread going so fast that you run out of ICU beds.

S3: I’m glad we’re talking about Lena Hidalgo, because I feel like she’s this interesting character and a lot of in a lot of places where Corona virus has spread. I’m used to seeing the mayor get out there and talk about what’s going on. And I think that is happening in Houston, too. But why has this county judge emerged as such a central figure?

S2: One of the county commissioners there is a guy named Rodney Ellis, who used to be a state senator. And he told me one time that unincorporated Harris County, the part of Harris County that’s not in the city of Houston or any of the other little cities about around it actually has more population than Houston does. And, of course, Houston, then all those other things are included in it. So when you go to an area like that, you know, Corona virus doesn’t know boundaries or respect them. And the person who is kind of at the executive position over the greatest number of people in that area other than a governor or something like that is the county judge. So she’s been really, really active. Her predecessor, a Republican named Ed Emmett, was also really, really active. And things like this, he and the current mayor, Sylvester Turner, and the current governor, Greg Abbott, actually did a really pretty good job of coordinating their response and relief efforts after Hurricane Harvey a few years ago. And it’s interesting to watch in this environment that, you know, Abbott has failed some and isn’t, you know, handling this particular disaster as well or in as organized way as he did the last one.

S3: But Linda Hidalgo has stepped up and she’s she’s really young and she speaks Spanish. She’s she’s 29, you know.

S2: And you and you’ve never seen her in public since this started or. We’ve never seen her in public since this started without a mask on, which is really interesting. You know, she doesn’t even take the mask off when she’s at the mike or at the podium.

S6: I’ve always been concerned about re-opening too quickly. I was moving too fast. And we’re seeing the impacts of that. Now you can see the hospital population started climbing.

S2: And, you know, she’s been very, very. Assistant in her message. You know, this is dangerous. You do want to spread it one way not to spread it is to wear a mask. Keep your distance. She’s done all the things she’s telling people to do, which isn’t true of a lot of other leaders.

S3: You mentioned the masks. And I want to talk about that a little bit more. Because masks are where she really started to tangle with the state government a little bit. She tried to require them for people back in April. Right. What happened when she did that?

S2: Well, we ran into this civil libertarian streak in Texas. You know, there’s a group of people that don’t like being told what to do. And, you know, meet a demand to do something by raising their middle finger. When the local officials started making orders like, you know, we need to close these kinds of businesses. They made a distinction at the beginning that turned out to be might be smart, but it was politically treacherous to call business a an essential business and business, be a non-essential business. And there was a lot of friction there. And then when you got down to sort of the personal liberty level, if you want to call it that, 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 a mask, but we’re not going to require it.

S3: And Governor Abbott really called out Judge Hidalgo, right?

S2: Well, yeah, he’s had particular, you know, battles on this front with Judge Hidalgo in Harris County and with Clay Jenkins, who’s the county judge in Dallas County, the second biggest county in the state. And, you know, it’s been this battle of state and local control. The these two Democratic county judges have been much more willing than the governor is to restrict behaviors in an effort to curb the growth of this virus. And the governor is getting a lot of pressure from the conservative end of the pool in his party to put personal freedoms ahead of some of those kinds of restrictions. And as a political matter, he’s you know, he’s tried to sort of 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 that now that we’re looking at the numbers in Texas, the county judges have been on the right track. And 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 a crisis situation that we’re approaching now.

S3: It’s kind of I went back to some video from May of the governor meeting with President Trump. And we also you know what, Governor? We learned a lot about it. And it’s kind of weird to watch now because it feels a little bit like he’s taking a victory lap. He’s almost cringing watching it.

S7: So what we’ve done, we’ve been able to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Texas.

S2: But at the same time, you come 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, you know, they sort of had things pretty locked down. And by the time you got to the middle and end of April, it was like, you know, this is actually looking pretty good. This is you know, this is going pretty well compared to some other states compared to at that time, compared to New York or Seattle or, you know, places where they really had terrible outbreaks and they took their foot off the brake. And not just that, but they hit the accelerator. You know, the governor came out in late April, the last week of April, and said, you know, we’re gonna have some phased in reopenings. We’re going to undo some of the restrictions that we did to curb this, because things are going pretty well. And 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 that they had put in place to curb the disease during April.

S1: Slowly covered 19 cases, started ticking up in June. They started ticking up faster. And then in the span of a week, Governor Abbott went from thinking Texas had a good handle on things to thinking the state needed to go back into some kind of lockdown.

S2: And they were looking at something that they call the positivity rate, which is the ratio of positive coronavirus tests to all tests taken. And the trigger number for the governor and for a lot of public health officials is if that’s over 10 percent, you’ve got problems.

S3: And that means that like 10 percent of people who are showing up to get a test are testing positive. So more of the people who suspect it are. Right.

S2: Right. And so they’re coming in and we’re now back at a number. I think the latest number was that I saw was 13 percent. We hadn’t seen 10 percent since early April. So you kind of see how this curve is going. It’s interesting. About halfway through May, maybe the. Third week of 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. But the governor’s come back and he said he closed all the bars on Friday that had been open up to 75 percent this past Friday. Right. He told restaurants to dial it back. That happens on Monday. So where they had been able to occupy 75 percent of their dining rooms, now they’re back down to 50 percent. I suspect that’s going to go down again. He changed the numbers on outdoor crowds instead of an event being allowed to have up to 500 people. Now, it can only have up to 100 people. And he did this odd thing where he kind of found a way for local officials to require people to wear masks.

S8: And it was basically he said, you can’t require an individual to wear a mask and you can’t find him or jail them if they don’t. But you can require a business to require employees and customers to wear a mask. So they started doing that. And, you know, there’s some practical problems with it. You make the grocery store the enforcer of the mask law. Right. So if somebody comes in without a mask, you know, the you know, a friend of mine was joking that maybe we ought to give all the clerks tasers.

S3: 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.

S2: Right. And, you know, part of the problem here is that they’re you know, they’ve kind of worked themselves into a place where enforcement is very difficult. We had this famous sort of hair incident where Paris salons and barbershops and stuff were told not to open. And that was part of the April restrictions. There was a hairstylist named Shelley Luther in the suburbs up just north of Dallas who basically said, I’m going to open my salon, my employees need to work and I’m going to be, you know, kind of figuratively raised her middle finger.

S9: And I just felt like if I opened, I could create a sterile environment and make it at least a lot safer.

S3: And she said, I expect to be arrested. Right.

S2: I expect to be arrested. And they took her to court. And the judge in that court said, you know, 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. And that is straight up, you know, forget about politics for a minute. That’s straight up contempt of court. So he put her in jail. He said, you know, look, if you will just agree not to open your shop, I’ll set you free. And she said, no, I’m going to open my shop. And he said, that’s contempt of court and put her in jail. And then you’ve got a situation politically where you sort of had this flash fire where, you know, free Shellie Luther and free the you know, people ought to be able to get a haircut. This big symbolic freedom thing, the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, very conservative, 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. So it’s sort of like he removed his own teeth. And so the problem now is that the governor can make an order and say it closed this or close that. And people can say that. Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. This last order on bars, the mayor of Abilene said we’re not going to close our bars in Abilene. We’re waiting to see how that thing comes out and what happens in Abilene. But that’s a heck of a deal when a governor orders something in. A mayor says that we’re not gonna do that. And the governor says, all right, he’s already removed his ability to do anything about it.

S3: Kiss me locally. Are people seeing Governor Abbott’s moves here as an admission of failure? Like I made a bad call in the beginning.

S2: You know, he actually said that about the bars. He was on television in El Paso and they asked him about would you have done anything different if you were doing this over again? And 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.

S7: In hindsight, it may have been better to have slowed the opening of the bar setting. But again, Texas was looking so good even a month after we had opened up.

S3: You touched on it really briefly, but I want to return to this idea. You brought up a completely separate agent of chaos separate from the governor and the local officials, 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. Governor Abbott, you mentioned he paid the bail for this woman who was arrested because she opened her salon. And 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 backwards. So can you talk about Dan Patrick and in his role here a little bit?

S2: Sure. You know, he’s, you know, really the political leader of the most conservative part of the Republican Party. He’s a former radio talk show host in Houston. He’s really good at that sort of. You know, talk show, Klammer. You know, the sort of populist clamor that you hear on cable TV and you see him a lot on cable TV and people all over the country know him from earlier in the pandemic, saying that older people like him look at this and think, you know, I don’t want to wreck this economy and have a negative impact like that on my grandchildren and suggested that he would rather some people die than tank the economy to meet the corona virus. I’m sorry to say that I was right on this. And and I’m thankful that we are now, Tonker, finally beginning to open up Texas and other states because it’s been long overdue. You know, they told us he’d been with the folks who say you ought to be able to do anything, you ought to be responsible. But it’s up to each individual to do that and not up to the state or the city or the county to tell us what to do. And he’s been very defensive of the people who are sort of ignoring these kinds of restrictions and orders.

S3: So has the governor lost control of his lieutenant governor?

S2: I don’t think he ever had control of his lieutenant governor. And in Texas, you don’t run as a ticket. These are all individually elected. You know, it may be that, you know, at any given time I’ve been covering it for 40 years, at any given time, the governor and the lieutenant governor are politically at odds whether they’re in the same party or not. And Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott are kind of representatives of different parts of the Republican Party. Dan Patrick, support inside the party comes primarily from social conservatives and libertarians and, you know, the Christian right. And Abbott’s come somewhat from there, but also from the you know, the business conservatives, the tall building lawyers and, you know, the big banks and all of those kinds of things. He’s one of the most prodigious fund raisers in the history of Texas politics and has put together a real juggernaut in Republican politics. And he outperformed everybody on the ballot in 2018, including Dan Patrick. So he’s really the most powerful Republican in office. But he’s not the most adept Republican in office. That’s probably Dan Patrick. And when you get conversations or long lasting debates like the one over how to meet the corona virus and one speaker is Patrick and one speaker is Abbot, 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, even if he’s wrong. Right. So if Greg Abbott comes out with a bunch of restrictions and the Dan Patrick wing of the party rises up and says, we’re going to ignore all of that, and Greg Abbott buckles like he did then, Dan Patrick’s carrying the day. Compare this with a hurricane. When you get a hurricane in Texas, you know, this whole sort of disaster machinery clicks in and you’ve seen it a million times, you know, watching cable TV when Houston’s flooded or whatever. You know, everybody puts on their sort of disaster shirt. You know, they’ve got on their you know, they looked like work shirts. And the governor comes out with a with a patch on and all of that. And everybody kind of leans in and first works to save everybody who’s immediately in trouble. Second works to rebuild, to tear down the things that were destroyed and to begin rebuilding them. This whole machinery kicks in. Everybody goes in the same direction with the same message. And that disaster machinery has been completely ineffective in the face of this pandemic.

S3: The approach in Texas right now seems so reactive. I’m sort of curious about whether anyone is looking forward past the next couple of days or the next couple of weeks. Like wasn’t Texas a state where a judge ruled you can’t use Corona virus as an excuse to get a mail in ballot in the fall? Like, what are they thinking about schools in the fall? Either all these things where you would hope someone was looking a little bit ahead.

S2: There are a couple of things going on here. You know, the one of the things in the past 10 days is that the governor said we’re going to open public schools for in-person classes in the fall. And you get a lot of weird practical problems like, you know, if you are looking at an 81 seat bus that takes kids to school and you have to socially distance so you can now only put, you know, 10 or 15 students on your 81 seat bus. How many more runs do you have to make? What do you have to do to the bus between each run to protect this group of kids from that group? You know, on and on and on like that. And there’s a million problems to work out. There were two attacks on the election thing. Texas is one of, I think, seven states that doesn’t allow universal absentee balloting. We only allow absentee ballots if you’re going to be out of. County where you’re supposed to vote during the election, if you are over 65 or if you’re disabled, and one of the attacks on the vote by mail thing was. Shouldn’t everybody be allowed to vote because of the threat that they might get a corona virus and that can be seen to be a disabling thing. So you can claim the disabling clause and get an absentee ballot. Court said no to that. There’s another challenge that could still perk back up before the November elections. That says, why is it constitutional for Texas to say if you’re 65 years old, you can have an absentee ballot? But if you’re 64 years old and three hundred and sixty days, you can’t. That’s age discrimination. So that’s still pending. But what it looks like right now is that the most voters in Texas are going to have to vote in person.

S1: To be fair, the future is pretty unclear everywhere right now. But in Texas, even the presence a mystery. The state still isn’t keeping up with the demand for corona virus tests, so it can’t discern the true extent of viral spread. You could ask me a couple of months back, I would have called the hotspot states like New York. The cautionary tales I would have said Newark would show a state like Texas the dangers of not taking the Cauvin threat seriously. Now, I wonder if it’s the other way around.

S3: Is Texas a warning to a state like New York? That’s, you know, lifting restrictions, lifting restrictions.

S2: I think you have to lift restrictions, you know. You know, with the other numbers in mind and, you know, there’s a balance here. You can’t ravished economy or, you know, erect 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.

S5: Ross, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate being on. Thanks. Ross Ramsey is the executive editor and co-founder of the Texas Tribune. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Jason de Leon and Mary Wilson. We can help each and every day from Alicia McMurry and Allison Benedikt. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. Talk to you tomorrow.