Even though Abbott has promised to open the state, he’s only taken piecemeal steps to-date such as putting together a task force of industry executives, mostly campaign donors, to weigh when to lift the ban on “nonessential” businesses. While New York City created a tip line for everyday people to help enforce social distancing, Abbott has permitted residents to gather in small groups in state parks, retail stores to offer to-go service as long as they follow safety precautions and hospitals to resume some elective procedures.
But he’s already closed schools for the remainder of the semester. And many conservatives are unimpressed by his attempts to throw meat their way by declaring abortions nonessential procedures and allowing churches to remain open while urging congregants to maintain social distancing measures.
“He seems indecisive, he seems timid, he seems bureaucratic and he seems tone deaf to the concerns of so many Texans,” said Matt Rinaldi, a former Republican state representative who is part of the movement to open the state. “Alabama’s taskforce has already completed their work. Why weren’t we doing this weeks ago?”
Abbott has to constantly negotiate a raucous coalition of urban, suburban and rural conservatives that spans homeschoolers, anti-vaccine advocates, religious activists and business groups for a party whose grip on the state’s politics is loosening.
So far, Abbott’s strategy is working politically.
About 58 percent of Texas voters trust Abbott to give them information on the virus, compared with 44 percent who say they trust Trump, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released Friday. This week, even President Donald Trump said Kemp moved too quickly in allowing businesses to operate — blowback that Abbott is carefully watching.
“It’s certainly accurate to say that Abbott is a measured and deliberative conservative,” said Ray Sullivan, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Rick Perry and a senior communications aide to George W. Bush, as governor. “When you are engaged in a high-profile public policy matter and you are getting flak from the left and the media and even the further right groups on the spectrum, you are usually in a good place from a policy standpoint.”
One factor bolstering his critics, albeit indirectly, is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The position is elected separately in Texas but Patrick is catching criticism — and a following — for suggesting senior citizens risk their health “in exchange for keeping the America that America loves for its children and grandchildren.”
Texas appears to have been spared the worst of the virus, buoying leaders like Patrick who want to see the state send people back to work sooner. The state has recorded nearly 600 Covid-19 deaths, considerably less than the 1,000 in Florida, 1,500 in California and 16,000 in New York, though low levels of testing might obscure that data.
“Let’s face the reality of where we are: In Texas, we have 29 million people,” Patrick told Fox News host Tucker Carlson this week. “We’ve lost 495 and every life is valuable, but 500 people out of 29 million and we’re locked down.”
Abbott’s coming announcement is bound to disappoint critics like Rinaldi and others who want Texas to follow governors like Kemp, who announced plans to open bowling alleys, gyms, hair salons and tattoo parlors Friday.
Instead, Abbott, who has kept many details of the upcoming announcement private for fear of blowback, is likely to issue a set of guidelines on the use of protective equipment and sanitation standards for restaurants and other businesses that might open up rather than pursue a blanket statewide order to immediately reopen, according to business executives and policy experts who say that he is deferring to medical professionals. During a Friday evening television interview, Abbott said efforts to boost asymptomatic testing and tracing would also be part of the announcement and plans to urge people to continue social distancing if they venture out of their homes.
He has said people will be able to start going to hair salons and restaurants as soon as next week, though cautioned the rules would be different across the state.
“There are some counties where the outbreak is still progressing too rapidly and they may not be able to fully participate in the initial phase of opening until they get the spread of coronavirus in their county under control,” Abbott said in the radio interview earlier this week.
At the outset of the crisis, Abbott let city and county officials take the lead in the pandemic response and moved later than other large states like California and New York in issuing a stay-at-home order. When he eventually did at the request of state public health officials, he refused to use the term for fear of upsetting conservatives.
But even the slightest perception of top-down overreach could further upset GOP activists like Steve Hotze, who sued Houston’s Harris County on Thursday over a local mask requirement.
Texas Democrats have slammed Abbott over prioritizing business interests and social conservatives over public health policy. They say Abbott’s lack of leadership has led directly to a lackluster pace of testing — a key component of lifting lockdown measures, according to public health experts. They’ve also chided Abbott for not including city and county leaders in the state taskforce.
“I don’t think anyone knows what the governor is going to do,” Austin mayor Steve Adler said. He said the city council members were planning to meet after the Monday announcement to decide their next steps, but acknowledged state orders will likely override local measures.
The pandemic poses a political dilemma for Texas Republicans pinning their reelection hopes on the state’s strong economy, as collapsing oil and natural gas prices have put people out of work. But some state leaders acknowledge that fears of a resurgent Covid-19 are eclipsing short-term economic concerns.
“It is our job to do what the data and the science and the medical experts tell us is the most intelligent and responsible things to do,” said Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who is not seeking reelection this year after a far-right activist released a politically damaging conversation.
“Texas, when you look at the data, has managed this, whether we’re blessed by God I don’t know,” Bonnen said. “Maybe it’s great leadership I don’t know,”