As coronavirus case across the country are dropping, cases in Texas actually increased by 5% over the last two weeks, according to statistics from Johns Hopkins University. Which makes this a very odd time for Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to do what he did on Tuesday.
“Too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities,” Abbott said. “Too many small business owners have struggled to pay their bills. This must end. It is now time to open Texas 100%.”
What Abbott meant by 100% is this: He is dropping the state’s mask mandate and allowing all businesses to open at 100% capacity beginning March 10. He justified those moves by noting that 5.7 million Covid-19 vaccine shots have been given in the state and that Texans have “mastered the daily habits to avoid getting Covid.”
Abbott’s move seems entirely motivated by politics rather than public health. Doctors and public health experts continue to warn that letting down our guard – and our masks – at this point is a major mistake. While vaccinations are on the rise, we remain a long way from herd immunity. (Less than 7% of Texans are fully vaccinated.) And the precipitous drop in cases over the last month or so has quite clearly plateaued even as the number of tests has declined – two indicators that suggest we are not out of the woods just yet.
We’ve also been here before. Last spring and early summer, Texas and other states controlled by Republican governors dropped strict stay-at-home orders and others measured designed to inhibit the spread of Covid-19 when their states did not show large numbers of cases. What happened? Cases, hospitalizations and, eventually, deaths soared.(More than 44,000 Texans have died from the virus, behind only California and New York.)
The Fort Worth Star Telegram editorial board asked the right question in an op-ed blasting Abbott on Tuesday night. Here’s the key bit:
“Why do this now? Why, when the news is so good on cases, hospitalizations and vaccine production, increase the danger? Why, with spring break and its associated travel and activity around the corner, send the message that we can let our guard down?
“…It’s lamentable that the governor can’t show the patience that most citizens have. Instead, he decided to make more illness and death more likely just as the finish line is in sight.”
The answer to these questions – and stop me if you’ve heard this one before – is politics.
Abbott has his eye on two races – his 2022 reelection campaign and the possibility of a bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. And he knows that the key to victory in both is to make sure the Republican base, which remains very loyal to former President Donald Trump, knows and like him. Of late, with the pandemic wearing on, the base has begun to chafe at Abbott somewhat – convinced, by the former President, that mask-wearing is some sort of assault on their freedom rather than simply a public health measure.
An April Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll pegged his approval rating among the state’s Republicans at 88%. That number dropped to 79% in the February edition of that same poll. And, as the Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek wrote Tuesday:
“The past year has seen the rise of fierce Abbott detractors from the activist wing of his party, like Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who was jailed over her refusal to close her business due to pandemic orders. Then there was the election of Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, who has openly disagreed with some of Abbott’s coronavirus decisions. And in the Legislature, GOP lawmakers became increasingly willing to speak out about Abbott’s use of executive power to fight the virus.”
Abbott’s moves on Tuesday were greeted by these critics as too little, too late. “I’m sorry @GregAbbott_TX but you are far too late,” tweeted former Republican state Rep. Jonathan Strickland. “Many lives and businesses have already been destroyed while you played King. Texans deserve better, you’ve got to go. #FireAbbott #2022Primary #txlege”
Despite the growing voices of unhappiness on Abbott’s ideological right, it remains far from certain that he will face a a serious primary challenge next year. (Abbot has $38 million in the bank for that race.)
Then there is the prospect of a national bid that Abbott is keeping in the back of his mind. And he’s seen governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and South Dakota’s Kristi Noem of late tout their supposed successes in battling the coronavirus in their states through a lack of regulation or mitigation strategies.
“South Dakota is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close,” Noem told the Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend to cheers and applause from the crowd. “South Dakota never instituted shelter in place, never mandated people wear masks.” (Sidebar: Noem’s claims are true. So too is the fact that South Dakota ranks 8th among states for deaths from Covid-19 per 100,000 residents.)
Abbott doesn’t want to be left behind before the 2024 race even begins. And he knows that Trump’s work over the past year to drive skepticism about the severity of the virus and about the necessity of mask-wearing has had a major impact among the party’s base voters. And, because of that, promoting a careful return to normal guided by best practices from public health officials is viewed as anti-freedom (or something).
So, Abbott is trying to protect his political right flank here. And keep up with the 2024 Joneses.
Notice that the I didn’t mention doing the right thing for his current constituents anywhere in those last two sentences.