Gov. Greg Abbott announced a strike force in charge of laying steps to re-open the Texas economy at a press conference in the capitol on April 17, 2020. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Analysis: Reopening Texas during a pandemic, cautiously and slowly

The actual perils dwarf the political risks.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced a three-phase economic thaw on Monday that he hopes will bring the state economy out of its government-induced coma, and in a way that doesn’t endanger public health.

Abbott is hearing simultaneous calls to open everything at once before the economy is lost and pleas to keep the state locked down until the COVID-19 pandemic abates. His response has been tentative, cautious and provisional, and it was no different on Monday.

The governor set the stage for lifting all restrictions, if things go well. But he left room for a retreat if the slow return to public life reinvigorates the coronavirus. This isn’t going to make the economy leap off its sick bed. And it won’t comfort those whose biggest fear is ending up in a sick bed.

Abbott’s just not moving as fast or as slow as the folks on the extremes would like. He’s trying to ease the Texans in the mushy middle back into their cultural and economic lives without endangering them.

Starting Friday, we can lean in and see what happens — whether most Texans are ready to go to the movie theaters and restaurants and shopping malls the governor says can open at the end of the week.

While announcing his proposal to open some businesses on May 1 and, if things go well, more businesses on May 18 — anybody out there need a haircut? — Abbott also took the car keys away from the local officials he counted on during the initial spread of the new coronavirus across Texas.

The governor initially left decisions about stay-at-home orders and closing restaurants and other businesses to local officials.

“Should community spread occur, state and local responses will be tailored to fit the needs of the local community,” Abbott aide John Wittman said in early March. “The Texas Department of State Health Services and local health departments have the authority to apply control measures to individuals or groups in a variety of circumstances to protect the health and safety of Texans.”

Even the governor’s declaration of a state emergency did not, at first, include statewide restrictions. He resisted calls for a statewide stay-in-place order, leaving local governments open to impose those restrictions. He reasoned that much of the state hadn’t yet seen signs of the virus.

“What may be right for places like the large urban areas may not be right at this particular point of time for the more than 200 counties that have zero cases of COVID-19,” Abbott said on March 22.

That turned out to be a situational judgment. Asked on Monday about mandatory mask requirements — complete with fines — in Harris County and elsewhere, Abbott said the state is encouraging everyone to wear masks when they’re out and about.

“However, it’s not a mandate,” he said. “And we make clear that no jurisdiction can impose any type of penalty or fine.”

Texas isn’t alone in trying to restart an economy stalled by social distancing and closed businesses and bunkered residents working at home or not working at all. It’s a dangerous balancing act, a policy concoction of thorny public health, economic, civil liberty and political problems.

Most Texans — 77% — favor stay-at-home policies to fight the coronavirus. And the majority would prefer staying at home too long to not staying at home long enough, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll of registered Texas voters. But within that, Democratic Texans and Republican Texas are split. Among all registered voters, 55% think not staying home long enough would be the bigger risk. While 83% of Democrats agree, only 32% of Republicans do.

They might not be able to agree on how to characterize the pandemic, but they agree that it’s serious, and they fear for their health as well as their jobs, retirements and paying the rent.

Abbott has voters who want the state to open up again, and soon, while most (69%) don’t think the coronavirus will be contained enough for that kind of action for at least the next few months.

On Friday, the Texans on the extremes — open it all now vs. keep it mostly closed — are each getting a little of what they say they want. Neither group is getting everything. But more Texans will be in public, and that’s the thing to watch. You know some folks want to get out and resume the life they had in early March, and probably some who will stay in their lairs for months.

A lot of them want to make their own choices instead of waiting for government mandates. That’s not everybody, of course: If the boss calls you back to work in a public space, the decision to jump back into the job you need is going to be tempered by your caution about social interactions with strangers during a pandemic.

The protesters and holdouts are interesting, but to see how this is going, watch the people in the middle — the actual mainstream Texans. That big group wants to get things running but also thinks social distancing is a pretty good idea right now.

Their actions will speak louder than anyone’s — even Greg Abbott’s. And they seem to be the group he’s watching, too, as he anxiously opens the door.

Author: ROSS RAMSEYThe Texas Tribune

Editor’s note: If you’d like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey’s column, click here.