It’s messing with Texas
Greg Abbott is battling the coronavirus with one hand and his party’s lunatic fringe with the other
In the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, Greg Abbott seemed happy to let Texas’s 254 county and 1,214 city authorities take the lead. And the conservative governor had little to gain by organising an economic lockdown that a minority of Republicans considered tantamount to treason. The state’s vastness—with its widening contrast between rural reaches and exploding metropolises—argued for local decision-making. By late March, however, with Texas still relatively unscathed by the virus, Mr Abbott’s calculation changed. He struck down an effort to make mask-wearing legally enforceable in Houston. He also issued orders—ahead of almost any other governor—to reopen the bars and restaurants that local officials had shuttered. It must have seemed like good politics as well as economics at the time.
Texas is now a centre of the viral wave sweeping the South and West. The state is seeing well over 6,000 new infections a day, five times the number of a month ago. And most are in Houston, where scenes reminiscent of New York in April are unfolding. Last week the biggest hospital network in America’s fourth-biggest city said its intensive-care wards were almost full. Mr Abbott meanwhile ordered bars and other non-essential businesses to close again, forced restaurants to cut their capacity by half and urged Texans to wear masks, as he mostly does. The would-be pioneer of reopening has become the first governor to order a reclosing.
His policy twists have been heavily criticised from both sides of the aisle, with some justification. A cautious politician, whose preference for handing down edicts after slow deliberation reflects his background as a judge, Mr Abbott has shown more calculation than leadership during the crisis. He did not endorse the local officials he deferred to early on, but hid behind them. His move to countermand them reflected a decade-long Republican campaign to centralise power in Austin in order to peg back the Democratic cities. Even so, Mr Abbott deserves to be cut a little slack.