Then came a series of dangerous policy decisions — and a face-smacking encounter with Texas culture — that proved me wrong.
Abbott, a Republican, was one of the last governors to issue a stay-at-home order, waiting until the very end of March and even then balking at that terminology. He was an early champion of rushing to reopen the state, despite saying that he knew doing so would put lives at risk. He barred mayors in Texas from fining people who failed to wear masks. In late April, when a Dallas salon owner was jailed for violating Abbott’s own executive order to shut down nonessential businesses, he called for her release. Several days later, he eased restrictions on restaurants, malls, and nail and hair salons.
Meanwhile, many Texans convinced themselves that the coronavirus threat was overblown, that masks were for wimps, and that contact tracing at open businesses would be an assault on our God-given freedom to shop until we drop.
I haven’t ventured out much, but when I have, the level of irresponsible behavior has been alarming. On one outing to another Dallas suburb, Cedar Hill, a woman without a mask insisted at a Dillard’s makeup counter that she be allowed to test liquid foundation on her face. The masked attendant informed her that it was against policy at this time, and that not being able to test foundation was better than falling ill with coronavirus. The maskless woman exclaimed, standing close to the attendant and to me, “Oh, I don’t care! I’ve got insurance!” She just wanted her makeup — distancing and masking be damned. I hurried and left the scene.
The combination of bad governance and stubborn ignorance has been predictably deadly. On Wednesday, the state reported a record-high 6,584 new cases. Positive test rates are climbing, as are hospitalizations; intensive care beds are filling up. The number of known cases has grown steeply, from fewer than 30,000 when the state began to reopen May 1 to more than 130,000 now. Overall, nearly 2,300 people have died.
So Abbott has been backpedaling. On June 3, as he announced the third phase of the state’s reopening, he crowed that “the people of Texas continue to prove that we can safely and responsibly open our state for business.” By Tuesday, he sounded far different: “The safest place for you is at your home,” he urged residents. And on Friday, Abbott put the reopening on hold, ordering that bars close, river-rafting operations shut down and that restaurants scale back to operating by 50 percent capacity ahead of the July 4th holiday.
You have to ask whether things would have become anywhere near this bad if Abbott hadn’t been so gung-ho about reopening.
You have to work hard not to see the racial divide at work. One foray to West Village commercial district in downtown Dallas featured largely maskless, non-socially-distancing white patrons enjoying their meals and drinks on restaurant patios, while servers, mostly workers of color, wore masks and gloves to protect themselves and the customers.
And you have to wonder: Is it something about Texas culture, particularly white Texans, to believe that our lives don’t matter, but bowling alleys, gyms and MAC stores do? Is it something in our water that makes people say out loud that grandparents should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the economy, as Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did?
Abbott also announced Friday that federal funding for testing sites would continue past the original June 30 end date, but Texas is about to become a case study in whether it is possible to put the genie back in the bottle once it has been freed from lockdown. It will be difficult to convince businesses to shut down again and people to stay inside once more. It all sounds so painfully familiar; after all, it was the Trump administration that ignored early warning signs and has failed to come up with a national strategy, instead leaving each state to deal with the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes.
Texans, like, Americans, pride themselves on being exceptional. We joke that we deserve to be our own country. But as the number of Texans falling ill and dying of the coronavirus continues to increase, I can’t help but feel like I have come back to live in a failing state.