As coronavirus cases spike in Texas and Florida, the states’ Republican governors have split on how seriously to take the surge in cases and whether to mandate masks.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott – who had previously blocked local governments from requiring masks, and had been among the first to reopen businesses – last week reversed himself and issued a mandate requiring masks in most of the state. The move came after he’d shut down all bars, limited restaurants to 50% capacity and halted elective surgeries in coronavirus hot-spots. In a video, he acknowledged what he said was “a stark reality: Covid-19 is not going away. In fact, it’s getting worse.”
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, like Abbott, has encouraged masks and social distancing. But unlike Abbott, he has refused to issue a statewide mandate, insisting that new action isn’t necessary. He has wiped out funding for coronavirus treatment in prisons and for online learning services, while insisting schools will reopen in the fall. And he is downplaying the spike in cases in his state, saying that those contracting the virus are younger.
“There’s no need to be fearful,” DeSantis said Monday.
The governors of the two largest Republican-led states’ response to the surge in cases in recent weeks showcases a split within the GOP over whether to follow President Donald Trump’s lead as Trump expresses skepticism toward masks, holds campaign rallies that ignore social distancing guidelines, insists that schools must reopen in the fall and more.
Some veteran Republicans who have built their own political brands, like Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, enacted stricter guidelines in response to the pandemic than most of their GOP colleagues. Abbott, a second-term governor who has held statewide office since 2002, had previously hesitated to close businesses and mandate masks – but changed his approach in recent days as case numbers soared.
But DeSantis, a first-term governor who needed Trump’s help to eke out a narrow victory in 2018, has mirrored Trump’s antagonism toward coronavirus-related restrictions, insisting this week that no further actions are needed even as his state has set records in cases and positivity rates in new tests in recent days.
Coronavirus cases have accelerated across much of the South and Southwest in recent weeks. Florida on Tuesday reported 7,347 coronavirus cases over the previous 24 hours, bringing the state’s total to 213,773. Texas crossed the 200,000-case threshold on Monday – just 17 days after it had reached 100,000 cases. The state reported 5,318 cases Monday, with public health officials there warning of significant increases in the coming days, and has seen 205,642 total.
DeSantis on Monday said the record-breaking spike in coronavirus cases across his state over the weekend, and its high positivity rates, are due in part to an increase in the number of tests performed – an echo of Trump’s frequent dismissal of the increasing number of coronavirus cases as being a product of more testing.
“There have been way more infections than documented cases,” he said. “But it’s not really evidence that it’s more prevalent.”
DeSantis held a news conference Tuesday in a coronavirus treatment facility – where his aides did not tell reporters prior to the event that 18 patients who had tested positive were already there being treated.
His insistence that schools must reopen in the fall is already leading local school officials to defy the governor. In Broward County, home to the nation’s sixth-largest school district, the superintendent said Monday that students will not be required to return to their brick-and-mortar classrooms.
Also looming in Florida is the Republican National Convention, which was moved to Jacksonville and is scheduled for August. DeSantis ignored a reporter’s questions Tuesday about whether he will waive crowd size restrictions for the RNC.
In Texas, Abbott – like DeSantis – has refused to take responsibility for the climb in cases. But he has issued more serious warnings, including saying Monday that deaths would spike this month.
“My concern is that we may see greater fatalities going forward as we go into the middle part of July,” he said on FOX4 in Dallas.
He said the state is “surging” medical staff to regions where hospitals’ ICU bed capacity is approaching its caps.
But Abbott’s reversal on masks has not slowed the criticism of his handling of the virus, as he has balked at further restrictions on businesses.
After Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said on ABC’s “This Week” that her county, which includes Houston, needs the state to give it authority to issue a stay-at-home order, Abbott said in a television interview Monday that going into “lockdown mode” would “really force Texans into poverty.” He also blamed local governments for failing to enforce existing orders.
“They need to show up, enforce the law as it is, before they’re given any further authority,” he said on Beaumont’s KFDM. “They ask for more and more, but they do absolutely nothing.”
Those comments sparked criticism, including from Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman and Democratic presidential candidate, and a potential 2022 Texas gubernatorial candidate, who tweeted Monday that Abbott should resign.
“Abbott opens Texas too soon, issues mask order too late, denies local leaders authority to contain the virus – causing uncontrolled covid spread, many hospitalized & soon dead because of his negligence – and then blames local officials?” O’Rourke wrote. “Pathetic. Resign.”