The eyes of the nation will be on Texas Monday as Gov. Greg Abbott unveils what he has previewed as a smart and safe strategy for gradually reopening the economy in the second largest state.
“We do want to open up business, and we want to open it up smartly, we want to open it up in a way that will not spread the coronavirus because it is a fact that if we do open up and it spreads the coronavirus, it will cause us to have to close back down,” the governor said Friday. “And in fact, the only thing worse than being a little bit tardy opening up, is opening up only to close back down.”
The governor made the remarks in an interview with conservative North Texas radio talk show host Mark Davis. It was one of a slew of recent interviews Abbott has done to pre-sell what may be the politically most consequential announcement of his five-and-half years as governor.
Abbott’s reputation, and the health and welfare of Texans and the Texas economy, may hang in the balance.
So far, Texas has been spared the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Texas ranks 41st among the 50 states and the District of Columbia for deaths per million people from the infection. Hospital capacity vastly outstrips demand. The governor has mostly avoided the showdowns between state and local officials that have erupted in the some other states.
Abbott is too careful a politician to risk squandering that success on a risky leap into the unknown, but he also keeps his ear tuned to rumblings on the right that could do anything to weaken his hold on his party’s base.
A vibrant Texas economy is the sine qua non of Abbott’s political identity.
“It’s no secret that Gov. Abbott and his team pay a lot of attention to polling, and that they have very successfully navigated his entire time as governor without making decisive decisions that aren’t in clear alignment with the majority of Texans,” said political consultant Luke Macias, whose clients include some of the conservative state legislators most critical of what they view as Abbott’s too-slow approach to reopening the economy.
“His decision Monday, and the decisions he will have to make one way or another over the coming weeks, are going to put that track record to the test,” Macias said.
Abbott has said he will seek a third term as governor in 2022 and would, if reelected, be an obvious candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.
He was already the most popular politician in Texas before the arrival of the coronavirus.
A fresh University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released this weekend, finds that, thanks to his handling of the coronavirus, Abbott’s standing with Texas voters is higher than ever.
He is a far more trusted figure among Texas voters than President Donald Trump, and his existing stay-at-home order — which runs through April 30 and will be replaced by his new order on Monday — enjoys the support of more than three quarters of Texas voters.
Over all, 56% of Texas voters approve of how Abbott has responded to the pandemic and 29% disapprove, compared with 48% of Texas voters who approve of Trump’s leadership and 45% who disapprove.
The internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted April 10-19 with an overall margin of error of plus or minus 2.83 percentage points.
Whatever evident public restiveness there is on the right, the poll found that 86% of Republicans and 30% of Democrats approve of how Abbott is handling the crisis.
“I don’t know what his polling is telling him but our polling is saying this strategy seems to be working,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project and co-director of the poll.
“I think he’s treading the right path,” said Josh Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project. “Trying to balance the reality of being the chief executive of a state completely run by Republicans in the face of a virus that requires large-scale government action, if not severe restrictions on people’s freedoms, it’s not surprising that creates the conflict with his Republican base. But I think the poll indicates that it’s a little bit less of a conflict maybe than people think.”
“The difference is that Republicans are more inclined to think that the coronavirus will be contained sooner rather than later, and that the consequences of waiting too long might be more harmful than the consequences of letting people out too early, but this is a matter of degree, not a matter of kind,” Blank said.
If you’re Abbott, Henson said, “You have to pay attention to the impatience that is out there, but that impatience is not `We’re fed up.’ I think people are impatient but not reckless.”
Democrats are anxious that Abbott could go too far too fast.
“My short answer is yes, I am worried that the governor will open commerce too broadly, thereby exposing us to higher infection rates,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said Thursday at the launch of an Austin Chamber of Commerce-led task force to study local business reopenings. “That is my concern. I think we all share that concern.”
“The governor has repeatedly said that his first priority is public health,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said at the same event. “And I appreciate that the governor has repeatedly said that he’s going to be guided by the science and the data and the doctors. And I’m encouraged by both of those things. I think, as a community, we’re going to hold the governor to that.”
“We all want businesses reopened as soon as possible, but we have to follow doctors’ orders for it to be safe to do so. That starts with better testing,” wrote state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, kicking off a 28-tweet thread on Wednesday.
We all want businesses reopened as soon as possible, but we have to follow doctors’ orders for it to be safe to do so. That starts with better testing.
THREAD on testing – what Gov. Abbott has said, what the data shows, and what his and other experts recommend (1/28)#txlege
— Chris Turner (@ChrisGTurner) April 22, 2020
The harshest criticism of Abbott has come from the Texas Democratic Party.
In a memo Wednesday on “Governor Abbott’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis,” Executive Director Manny Garcia asserted that, “Gov. Abbott has consistently turned a blind eye to the severity of the pandemic while cynically exploiting the crisis for his own political gain.”
Garcia associated Abbott with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s comments last week in an interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox, in which he said that the restart of the economy in Texas and elsewhere was “long overdue.”
“In Texas, we have 29 million people, we lost 495, and every life is valuable, but 500 people out of 29 million and we’re locked down, and we’re crushing the average worker, and we’re crushing small business we’re crushing the market. We’re crushing this country,“ Patrick said. ”And I don’t want to die, nobody wants to die, but man we gotta take some risks and get back in the game, and get this country back up and running.“
“Gov. Abbott may not use Patrick’s words, but his message is the same. Texans should die for other people’s money,” Garcia wrote in his memo.
Patrick has otherwise backed Abbott’s leadership in response to the coronavirus. When asked about Patrick’s comments on Fox at his Tuesday news conference, the governor said of the plan for restarting the economy, “it is a timeline, by the way, so you know, that the lieutenant governor and I have spoken about for a long time.”
Abbott also made clear in his interviews Friday that he is not going to be the next Brian Kemp, governor of Georgia, who this past week issued an order reopening businesses including gyms, hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys, that Trump at first encouraged and then disparaged.
“I want them to open as soon as possible and I want the state to open, but I was not happy with Brian Kemp. I will tell you that,” Trump said Thursday.
“I’ve got to tell you, when you listen to what the president said about what Georgia opened up, he opened up the kinds of things that have the highest rate of transmission and exposure for people,” Abbott told Davis Friday.
In an interview Friday with KTVT, the CBS affiliate in Fort Worth, Abbott said that while he was sympathetic with the spirit of entrepreneurs seeking to jump the gun on reopening, they should wait and see exactly what his order allows and doesn’t allow.
“We are working on strategies that I will announce on Monday, about the extent to which Texas can begin to open businesses and we’re doing so based upon the advice of the four medical doctors that we have working on this project,” Abbott said.
“With regard to things like salons and gyms, they are still prohibited by the CDC, by the federal government, by the state government and so those would be situations where people who open up those types of businesses, they’re subject to having their license revoked forever,” Abbott said.
“Our political leadership has a really tough balancing act,” Luis Ostrosky, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, told the American-Statesman. “They have to balance public health with the very real economic downturn we’re experiencing. The governor has surrounded himself with a very smart group of people, in business and in science. Every decision being made is taking those two sides into account. There’s a strong drive to open things, but I see it being done in a safe fashion and in a measured fashion.”
“You can open any kind of business, any kind of venue,” he continued, “if we understand what I call the rules of engagement” — such as safe distancing and the use of facemasks and hand sanitizer, he said.
“I envision a framework where we can have ways to open schools safely, office buildings safely, retail stores safely, as long as we observe the right rules of engagement,” he said.
As for groups who might not observe — or be able to observe — the rules of engagement, such as teens cavorting at the beach or 7 year olds who can’t stop themselves from playing with schoolmates, Ostrosky said: “Definitely it’s a concern, which is why we need a very strong educational campaign, about why we’re doing this. We always know there are certain groups who don’t understand, or who don’t want to understand.”
The four doctors advising Abbott are Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt; Dr. John Zerwas, a former state representative and executive vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System; Dr. Mark McClellan, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and U.S. Medicaid and Medicare administrator, and Dr. Parker Hudson, assistant professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at Dell Medical School and program director for the internal medicine residency.
Abbott described Hudson to Davis as the tracing and contacting specialist “who will help us coordinate the system that’s making sure that we are maintaining control of the expansion of COVID-19 in the state of Texas as we do begin the process of opening up.”
Abbott said his plan will allow for different strategies for counties experiencing very different conditions, but that his order, “will effectively be the law for the state of Texas and counties cannot have policies inconsistent with it.”
In his conversation with Davis, Abbott also pushed back the view held by some on the right, including Patrick, that policy makers were spooked into extreme shutdowns by alarmist forecasting models that proved false.
Abbott said that when his stay-at-home order was issued on March 30, “all the prognostications at the time were that Texas was going to face a very much higher mortality rate than we did.”
“So why did Texas not suffer higher mortality rate than we did?” Abbott said. “A lot of people think it’s because of flawed models. Actually it’s because Texans engaged in the distancing practices that were needed.”
“Remember this, those models, at the time that they showed the high mortality rate, they did not show that Texas was engaging in distancing practices,” Abbott said. “Remember, that we have been able to avoid what happened in Louisiana, what happened in New York what happened in New Jersey what happened in Washington and California and so many other places, because Texans in a typical fashion do a good job.”
Asked Friday by Dana Loesch, the conservative commentator who hosts a nationally syndicated talk radio show from Dallas, what criteria he used in deciding to move forward with Monday’s plan, Abbott cited the downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases — which peaked April 10 — and of deaths, which peaked five days later.
But both daily new cases and new deaths generally have been creeping upward over the past five days.
Noting that more people will test positive as more people are tested, Abbott said, “the most important thing to look at is what is the hospitalization rate, what is the availability rate of hospital rooms, of ICU units, of ventilators.”
The number of patients being treated in Texas hospitals for COVID-19 has fluctuated between 1,153 and 1,849 since April 6.
Unlike “catastrophes” in other states, Abbott said, “we have barely tapped the beds that are available, the ICU units that area available, the ventilators that are available, so the medical supplies in Texas are abundant to meet the needs of all the healthcare challenges that anybody that may suffer from from COVID-19.”
“The numbers really do look good in the state of Texas, we’re moving in the right direction,” Abbott said. “That will allow us to slowly, carefully and safely begin the process of reopening our businesses.”
Staff writer Asher Price contributed to this report.