Governor Greg Abbott of Texas has a problem.
35 of the 254 counties in Texas have seen no cases of coronavirus. Another 19 have only seen one case throughout the crisis, and for about half of those, the victims have already recovered, with no deaths. Another 71 have had their cases number in the single digits, with about a third of them having seen all of their known cases resolved. That’s 125 of the 254 counties which are filled with citizens who have watched all of their local businesses shut down and their economies devastated for what seems to be something which isn’t affecting their communities.
This was expected. It’s why the argument was made at the beginning of the lockdown period that if nothing got worse, it meant that the lockdown was successful. With every passing week, as local businesses started to fail and people lost jobs, people in those communities which were barely impacted were besieged by information sources insisting that the crisis was false, or that nearly all of the damage was happening to New York City.
Republicans heard that it was all a scam, that the disease was a lot like the flu, that most people had already been exposed. Democrats heard that it was extremely dangerous and that New York, Atlanta and New Orleans demonstrated this… the large cities, or those who had traveled into those cities, were at risk.
Both of these narratives helped to convince people in rural areas and smaller cities that they possessed some degree of separation from the disease. Now, seeing the choice between reacting to a disease that isn’t likely to affect them at all or watching their communities die, they are quite reasonably choosing the second. It’s a false choice, of course, which is something that the rural ares which have had breakouts could explain to them… but they’ve now had months of having that false choice presented to them as fact, and they’re unlikely to be shaken from it by anything save direct confrontation with the disease, whether by themselves or people they know.
For all the talk of rural flight, an Atlantic piece in 2015 showed that more than 50% of Americans live in the areas where they were raised, and that rural citizens were “significantly less likely to have moved away from their hometowns.” Even with the availability and comparatively low price of travel, people aren’t necessarily venturing forth: a Forbes article from last year found that 11% of Americans have never ventured outside of their state, and about 10% of Americans uninterested in any sort of travel.
This means that Abbott is facing a large portion of his constituency which is expecting him to open the state… and he is responding to them by doing so. Failing to take this action will expose both him and the Texas Republican party as a whole to terrible political losses in November, particularly as most of those rural areas consistently vote Republican. There is no doubt that the representatives of those locations have been pressuring Abbott toward this decision for those exact reasons.
As of today, daycare centers are open in Texas. Bars and tattoo parlors and bowling alleys and aquariums and more will be able to open on Friday. Restaurants will be allowed to 50% capacity. Zoos will be able to open to 25% capacity by the end of the month (and, an aside… this befuddles me, as a zoo, with many open-air cages and very wide pathways and no real necessity to touch any surfaces, and where transmission to animals from visitors is very unlikely due to the distance between attendee and cage, seems like the one place where limited visitation would be reasonable even during the height of an outbreak. But I digress….) At the end of the month, overnight camping and youth sports may resume. In June, summer school can start.
By clearing all of these activities he is sending the message that the crisis is over, that Texas has weathered the storm. It has not.
Testing remains low. As an example, the county where I live has advertised for free testing for any who desire it. That testing will happen on May 20th, and will again be available every two weeks afterward. The county to the north will have their testing available on May 21st, and every two weeks after that. There is a strict limit of 100 tests which will be administered, and people must sign up ahead of time and affirm they are already demonstrating at least one symptom of covid-19. This is woefully inadequate… particularly as I live in the 69th largest city in the country, with over 280,000 residents.
There has been no statewide spike upward since opening up… but there was a steady increase of cases already being seen across the state, and that increase has continued. With half of the state currently showing little effect from the virus, it’s unsurprising that there hasn’t been a significant shift upward. Instead, Texas has mirrored the United States as a whole, with outbreaks.
Abbott should have been highly visible to Texans, addressing these outbreaks and explaining how and why they affected people in rural and semi-rural communities. Instead, his subordinates went on national media outlets and argued that the threat was overblown.
With the lifting of restrictions, Abbott is gambling that the local communities with larger populations will be able to restrict the spread of the virus through people acting responsibly. But by sending the signal that the danger is over he is greatly reducing the likelihood that many Texans in the larger cities and their surrounding areas will do so. Worse, he has responded to areas which have attempted to mandate restrictions by limiting their authority to do so.
Abbott, to his credit, is attempting to handle the outbreaks through testing and contact tracing in the areas where they occur, even as the overall state testing remains pitifully inadequate. In that one way, his response greatly surpasses Trump; he is acting, effectively, like Trump might if the President were capable of consistent rational thought. It is even plausible that he has pushed for greater testing in the state but has been rebuffed at the federal level, as many of our tests are processed through the CDC. But in too many other ways he is facing the same issues as the President, with Texas as a microcosm of the country, and is echoing Trump’s failures. If he has made efforts to expand testing, he has not dared to speak publicly of them for fear of crossing the President. This means he is either incompetent or weak, neither of which is a good trait in a Governor.
He has claimed that the state will be able to respond to further outbreaks via the dispatch of teams of experts. There are many flaws in this plan: the teams are understaffed, the disease has an incubation period wherein people are infectious without showing symptoms, and the same hospitals which have, to date, responded well to case surges risk catastrophic results if their available supplies are overburdened… and while Texas has gathered extra ventilators, we are still limited on ICU beds and trained health workers. The Governor shouldn’t be risking the lives of his people in such a cavalier fashion, but this is the inevitable result of mimicking Trump policy… unnecessary risks and, all too often, catastrophic results.