Caught between local officials and Donald Trump, Gov. Greg Abbott carefully navigates coronavirus
Abbott’s approach has helped keep the peace across levels of government handling the response in Texas but has also raised questions about whether he’s being aggressive enough in responding to a virus that threatens thousands of lives.
The same week that President Donald Trump suggested the U.S. economy, reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, should be “opened up and raring to go by Easter,” Gov. Greg Abbott has struck a different tone.
“On one hand, I think there is an urgent desire by a lot of Americans to get back to work, to get back to normal,” Abbott said during a Thursday news conference at the Texas Capitol. "That said, everyone understands that we will all be working off of the best advice of medical professionals about what is the safest way to proceed."
Those divergent messages highlighted the middle-ground approach that Abbott has taken so far as the state’s chief executive responds to a global health crisis. While Trump and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have increasingly argued that America needs to get back to work as soon as possible, Abbott has resisted such rhetoric.
Meanwhile, many Democrats and local leaders in both parties have urged him to go further and order residents statewide to stay in their homes to halt the spread of the virus. So far, Abbott has avoided that, too.
His relatively careful approach has helped keep the peace across the levels of government handling the response in Texas but has also raised questions about whether he’s being aggressive enough in fighting the spread of a virus that threatens thousands of lives.
“I’m very grateful the governor has continued to put public health first, despite some heartless comments recently from our lieutenant governor and president. But I wish he would provide clearer statewide direction,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, who was among 65 of the House Democratic Caucus’ 67 members who called on the governor Tuesday to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order.
Typically mild mannered, Abbott has found himself on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic — asking the federal government for more resources, leading televised press conferences on incremental statewide changes, hosting weekly calls with members of the state’s Legislature and assessing local leaders’ efforts to manage the public health crisis.
It is the latest high-stakes leadership test for a governor who has guided the state through several major crises since taking office in 2015, including Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and multiple mass shootings.
But coronavirus could be the most devastating yet. Official numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services show that at least 1,396 people have been sickened by the coronavirus in Texas, with 18 dead. Because of this, many in government have predicted a terrible human cost — with hospitals scrambling to increase their capacity — as well statewide economic ruin.
In mid-March, Abbott put a strict statewide order in place that limits social gatherings to 10 people, prohibits eating and drinking at restaurants and bars, and closes gyms, among other things. He has also attempted to make it easier for Texas Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients to use their benefits at take-out and drive-thru restaurants, waived certain regulations to allow nursing students and retired nurses to easily join the workforce, and pushed back the May runoff date to July.
Abbott has also refused to downplay the virus’ seriousness or cast blame for its spread, even as Trump and some of his Republican allies call the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” or similar monikers. He has taken pains to warn that everyone is vulnerable to the virus; has consistently referred to it as the coronavirus or COVID-19, which is the disease caused by the virus; and warned last week that tens of thousands of Texans could be infected.
As a result, he’s asserting himself in ways that sometimes highlight a lack of urgency from the White House and other top members of Texas’ GOP — and at times put him at odds with both Democrats and members of his own party.
Patrick has made clear his opposition to a statewide lockdown, but Abbott has not ruled it out — and even warned at a Tuesday news conference he could take more aggressive statewide action if compliance continued to lag in his view.
"We have 200 counties that don’t have the virus," Patrick said in a tele-town hall minutes before Abbott’s news conference. "We're not locking down all  counties. We haven't. I hope we don't have to — because not all 254 counties are alike."
Patrick even said in a radio interview Wednesday that he is “not in favor of these lockdowns, even in the cities and counties,” three days after Abbott declined to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order but said he would “applaud” cities and counties that act on their own.
Patrick drew the widest attention, though, when he told Fox News on Monday night that grandparents and senior citizens — like him — would rather perish from the new coronavirus if it meant staving off economic collapse for future generations. U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, later echoed Patrick’s comments and said efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus shouldn’t lock down the entire economy.
Patrick’s comments drew a tidal wave of pushback from state and national Democrats. Abbott also seemed to reject the notion. “If the goal is to get the economy going, the best thing we can do to get the economy going is to get COVID-19 behind us,” Abbott said Tuesday.
Abbott has rarely been at odds with Trump or Patrick, a stringent conservative, Trump’s Texas campaign chairman and leader of the Texas Senate. But state leaders like Abbott have more to lose if contagion ravages the state and results in a multitude of deaths.
“How elected officials handle challenges for their states will absolutely be paramount in the minds of citizens in evaluating what they think of their performance in office,” said Steve Munisteri, the former chairman of the Texas GOP and a senior adviser to U.S. Sen John Cornyn.
Despite the obvious contrasts in tone between Abbott and other Republicans like Patrick and Trump, the differences have not led to open conflict. Trump has praised Abbott multiple times at his daily White House briefings and said Sunday that he has “total confidence” in the governor. In the radio interview Wednesday, Patrick said Abbott has handled the crisis “perfectly so far.”
“The governor and I run on separate tickets — it’s not like a vice president and a president — but I’ve always tried to be extremely supportive of the governor,” Patrick told the radio host, Lubbock's Chad Hasty.
“You’ve never seen us quarrel in public — and we haven’t now, by the way, and we’re not going to — but my point is if we disagree on something, we’ve done it behind closed doors,” Patrick said. “And that’s happened probably less than 5% of the time because we’re on the same page most of the time.”
For his part, Abbott said Tuesday that he’s been in contact with Vice President Mike Pence, the chair of the administration’s coronavirus task force and himself a former governor, and expressed hope that the federal government would ramp up testing capability for all of the states in need. On Wednesday, the Trump administration declared a major disaster in Texas — two days after Abbott’s request for one — leading Abbott to thank the president for his “swift action.”
Cornyn, whose response to the outbreak carries additional weight because he is on the ballot in November, has stood by Abbott as he has resisted calls for a statewide shelter-in-place order.
“I’ve known Greg Abbott for a long time, and he’s a very thoughtful and diligent person, and he works his tail off on things like this,” Cornyn said Wednesday on his weekly conference call with Texas reporters.
There has been very little intraparty dissent, with one state lawmaker, Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, vocally pushing for a statewide shelter-in-place order. But otherwise, most Texas Republicans have been happy to at least defer to Abbott.
Still, by leaving the question of stay-at-home orders to individual cities and counties, Abbott has placed a significant amount of trust in local officials — especially mayors and county judges in liberal-leaning big cities — whose judgment he has questioned in the past. In recent years, Abbott has fought with those officials over issues like homelessness, taxation and employment regulations and has pushed legislation that limits their power.
State Sen. Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican and outspoken local control advocate, said Abbott is getting it right in dealing with the outbreak.
“We have to be careful about one-size-fits-all, and we find that in legislation all the time,” Seliger said in an interview Wednesday. “The things that are appropriate in Dallas County and the things that are appropriate in Parmer County may not be the same, but I can guarantee you that both county judges are just as concerned about the health of the residents and the economy in those counties.”
But some local officials and health care leaders have argued for dramatic statewide action now. The only way to control the virus, they say, is to keep people as isolated as possible in areas where numbers are currently low— or else risk an uncontrollable spread later.
“We are headed to a point of no return if we continue to dawdle,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Sunday. “This is larger than Dallas County, so I implore [Abbott] to reconsider” a statewide order.
Abbott’s efforts also haven’t shielded him from pushback from the state’s Democrats. State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, wrote a letter to Abbott dated Sunday asking him to convene a special legislative session to work on fallout related to the coronavirus pandemic. Abbott has not ruled out a special session but has said it would not be necessary if everyone does their part to curb the spread of the virus. State House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has also thrown cold water on the idea.
During an interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith on Tuesday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he wished Abbott were “stronger” in his response but praised the governor for “not joining Trump in suggesting this is not serious.”
“Right now, every county and city is having to reinvent the wheel and they move forward with these ‘Stay Home, Work Safe’ orders,” Zwiener said. “We need the governor to have the political courage and step forward and do it for the entire state.”
Still, Abbott has kept the political squabbling to a minimum, helping him fend off criticism from his detractors.
“I think the governor is trying to strike the right balance between public safety and reasonable stay-in-place orders to try to keep local economies still operating,” said Rodney Anderson, chairman of the Republican Party in Dallas County, an area that has become the state’s epicenter of the crisis.
Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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