Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order mandating all routinely wear face coverings statewide came as a surprise on the eve of the long Fourth of July weekend but hardly a shock. Surprise, because Abbott for several years has ranked as the most popular Texas Republican in a party increasingly driven by nutty conspiracy theories, anti-science stances and pro-life principles extending no further than birth. Not a shock, because for days Abbott has displayed increasing concern about skyrocketing COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths on his watch.
One must never presume to know what truly motivates an individual, especially a policymaker, even as we may judge some for political courage and others cowardice. Yet one wonders what caused Gov. Abbott to not only buck the laissez-faire mindset of his party and pause our state’s economic reopening but actually reverse course in the name of public safety.
After all, Abbott in past months signed an executive order undermining an earlier order once right-wing rabble rallied to the defense of Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther, who openly defied orders that she cease and desist her operations during the pandemic and briefly got thrown in jail. He obtained what Republican office-holders crave, the blessing of President Trump, for reopening of the Texas economy even though it skirted White House guidelines in terms of public health criteria — further proof of wildly mixed messaging from the Trump administration.
Yet something clearly got to Abbott in recent days. Did someone he respects or cherishes sicken and die in this viral explosion? Or did Abbott — astute politician that he is — read the tea leaves, consider Trump’s sliding poll numbers amid White House mismanagement of a pandemic bordering on dereliction of duty and speculate how his own political fortunes might falter if he didn’t demonstrate more responsible oversight? Or is he simply employing the tough management style he shows (to plaudits) during Texas storms?
Certainly his actions must reassure front-line health-care workers. To quote Waco-McLennan County Public Health District official Kelly Craine, the situation has gone from the equivalent of a tornado watch to a tornado warning: “The virus is here. It’s rapidly spreading. You’re at risk.” United Memorial Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Joseph Varon, struggling with a crush of COVID-19 hospitalizations in infested Houston amid carelessness and overconfidence by the public, puts matters more bluntly: “We’re fighting two wars. War No. 1 is the COVID virus. War No. 2 is stupidity.”
Abbott’s latest order — coming atop others that in recent days closed bars, retightened restrictions on restaurants and broadened local regulatory powers as Texas plunges deeper into pandemic red zones with hospital capacity threatened — predictably drew brickbats from the right-wing crazies he has long coddled. When Abbott wished all a happy Fourth via Facebook, the far right branded him “King Abbott” and “a tyranny-loving hypocrite whose rule over Texas needs to end as King George’s ended in the USA.” Those rankled at his closing bars protested that “Bar Lives Matter,” even though the Texas Medical Association (now advising against the in-person state GOP convention in Houston it was sponsoring) rates going to bars one of the quickest ways to contract COVID-19. In the Permian Basin where more than 40 health-care workers have been infected, Ector County Republicans censured Abbott. And Republican activists are suing Abbott over the mask order, whining: “Today a mask, tomorrow a hazmat suit — where does it stop?” You can’t make this stuff up.
Meanwhile, the governor’s latest gutsy order takes some heat off embattled local leaders for similar public health measures, including Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver. Amid exponential local growth in COVID-19 cases (1,723 active cases as of Tuesday), Deaver took advantage of the governor’s allowing cities to require face coverings of employees and customers in commercial settings two weeks ago. Deaver’s reward? Criticism ranging from the local order’s supposedly representing a scheme to raise city revenue through $1,000 fines to its violating, as one skeptic charged, the First Amendment “freedom of choice” — further evidence of our widespread constitutional ignorance.
All of this comes as a national debate rages over statuary and who’s really worth honoring in posterity. Don’t plan on any statues of Abbott. He has many amends to make from his career — defending a voter ID bill that even some conservative judges found racially discriminatory; backing a “bathroom bill” discriminating against transgendered persons; and allowing for potential racial profiling in a flawed sanctuary cities bill. Yet his recent acts in a pandemic crisis showing regard for the public in the face of party resistance should demonstrate to all that even those possibly on the wrong side of history rate plaudits now and then for doing the right thing in a big way, sooner or later.