From one crisis to the next: With Texas still reeling from the February blackouts, the governor decides to lift state COVID-19 mandates—then blames immigrants for spreading the virus.
Welcome to the 87th Legislative Session. Since the last session came to a close in June 2019, Texas has been hit by an unrestrained pandemic and a crippling economic crisis—and now the fallout from deadly blackouts. Under unprecedented circumstances, lawmakers are faced with a number of urgent challenges. The Texas Observer is following along every step of the way.
Go here for last week’s dispatch from the state Capitol.
What We’re Following:
On Tuesday, at a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, Governor Greg Abbott announced that he was rescinding his statewide COVID-19 orders. “It is now time to open Texas 100 percent,” Abbott declared, saying that Texas had controlled the pandemic and that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.” As of Wednesday, March 10, any and all businesses will be able to open at full capacity and the state will no longer require masks in public. “Personal responsibility” and “vigilance,” Abbott was confident, would now suffice in managing the spread of the coronavirus.
Abbott teased his “big announcement” in the days ahead, but the move, which goes against CDC guidelines, still came as a shock to many across the state. School superintendents scrambled to figure out what it would mean for their districts while city and county officials—who’ve repeatedly been undermined by the governor during the pandemic—shot back. “I’m very disappointed, it’s an irresponsible action. We still have 464 people in the hospital and 199 in ICU as of yesterday,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said. “We’re still not out of the woods. And I think it’s very premature to do this.”
Abbott did provide one caveat. If any of the state’s 22 hospital regions saw COVID-19 hospitalizations rise above 15 percent of a region’s total capacity for a week straight, then county judges would be allowed, if they so choose, to enact “COVID mitigation strategies.” However, they’re not allowed to penalize people for not wearing masks or businesses for not requiring them, and cannot limit business capacity to less than 50 percent.
This has been Abbott’s playbook throughout the pandemic: throw open the gates and let the difficult choices trickle down to local officials and businesses, while simultaneously hamstringing their ability to actually do anything.
While COVID-19 case counts and deaths have slowed in recent weeks, the state is still averaging over 200 deaths a day and more contagious COVID-19 variants are spreading across the state. A new study published this week found that Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, is also the first where all major variants have been recorded. Despite Abbott’s promises about the state’s vaccination rollout, Texas’ vaccine distribution is still among the worst in the United States, with just 7.5 percent of Texans fully vaccinated—less than one-tenth of what experts say is needed to reach herd immunity. There are currently about 5,200 people hospitalized for COVID-19, roughly three times more than when Abbott first loosened state restrictions last May.
Three of the four medical advisors on the governor’s Strike Force to Open Texas, which is otherwise stacked with CEOs, mega-donors, and lobbyists, were reportedly not consulted about his decision to lift the mandates. Dr. John Hellerstedt, Abbott’s appointed commissioner of the Department of State Health Services, said he didn’t “have a direct conversation” with Abbott ahead of the announcement. Another medical advisor, Dr. Mark McClellan, a Duke University professor, told the Austin American-Statesman that he disagreed with the decision: “Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.” Meanwhile, President Joe Biden called Abbott’s decision ”neanderthal thinking.”
In response, Abbott turned to an old standby: immigrant-bashing. He lashed out Wednesday in a tweet claiming without evidence that Biden was “recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities” and demanded he “end this callous act that exposes Texans & Americans to COVID.” The City of Brownsville, which has been conducting testing at the city’s bus station for asylum-seekers who’ve been released by Border Patrol since January 25, confirmed that 108 migrants have tested positive for COVID-19—just over 6 percent of the total tested. Texas’ statewide seven-day average positivity rate has been above 6 percent since last May. The Department of Homeland Security is reportedly working to use FEMA funds to support local efforts to test, isolate and quarantine migrants who’ve tested positive, but the plan is stalled because Abbott hasn’t signed off. Yet Abbott doubled down in a local TV news interview, repeating the unsubstantiated claims and growing uncharacteristically angry, even rattled, as the anchor tried to interject.
It’s not the first time Abbott has stoked racist, xenophobic ideologies. After the El Paso massacre less than two years ago, Abbott issued a non-apology apology for a campaign mailer sent out the day before the mass shooting that used inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric. After a meeting with El Paso lawmakers, he acknowledged “mistakes were made and course correction has been made.”
Abbott’s relationship with his party’s right-wing base has been on the rocks because of what they see as his authoritarian pandemic response, and his decision to lift the mask mandates and business restrictions is a clear political move to soften those tensions—especially as he gears up for a potential 2024 primary challenger from the right.
One question now is how Abbott’s move will affect the legislative session, which was slow to start because of the pandemic and is now consumed by investigating and debating reforms in the wake of the blackouts. However, both Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan issued statements in full support of Abbott’s decision. Many observers have been skeptical about how much the Lege would actually do to address the pandemic. With Abbott signaling that the state government is no longer needed to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators might just act accordingly.
What We’re Reading:
Predictably, state lawmakers’ response to Abbott’s end to state COVID-19 restrictions have been divided along party lines. Democrats have aggressively condemned the governor for recklessly endangering the public while Republicans have broadly applauded the move—with many saying it was long overdue. / Houston Chronicle
Peter Crampton, one of several out-of-state ERCOT board members to resign after the blackouts, said in an interview that the grid operator has been used as a political scapegoat and that most of the responsibility lies with the Public Utility Commission and the Legislature. He also warned that the PUC may be facilitating a massive consolidation of the retail electricity market by NRG and Vistra, creating a “too-big-to-fail” problem similar to Wall Street, “where the one or two or three banks that remain standing are huge monsters that can’t fail. And what that does is it destroys the incentives for good behavior.” / Texas Public Radio
Emails show that rich alumni and donors threatened to stop supporting the university financially and demanded that the university president take a stronger stance supporting “The Eyes of Texas.” A number of donors made comments that were racist and dismissive of student-athletes. / Texas Tribune
All Hat, No Cattle
The Texas Legislature is known for its outlandish members, ludicrous antics, and right-wing flare-ups. Here’s your weekly dose.
With the help of hundreds of thousands in campaign cash from Empower Texans right-wingers, Bryan Slaton ousted Dan Flynn in the GOP primary for East Texas’ conservative House District 2 in July. When the former Baptist minister-turned Empower Texans mercenary came to Austin for his first term this year, he claimed he struggled to find a place to live where he felt safe from the unhoused. He said he heard from Republicans, Democrats, and lobbyists alike who complained about all the homeless people in the city. So he decided to write a bill. But instead of dedicating more state funding to supportive housing, or addressing criminalization of the unhoused, he filed House Bill 2471 to rename the stretch of I-35 in downtown Austin—underneath which many folks live in tent camps—as the “Steve Adler Public Restroom Highway”, after the city’s mayor.
Slaton explained to the Austin American-Stateman that it was a reference to complaints he’s heard about unhoused people who are forced to relieve themselves in public. “A good joke requires some truth in it, and this has truth in the name,” he said, clearly quite proud of his wit (LOL!).
It’s important to note that when the state House met to vote on legislative rules in January, Slaton offered a proposal to block all bills naming highway systems until there was a vote on a bill to ban abortion in Texas. The stunt failed by more than two-to-one. This one, in all likelihood, will suffer a similar fate.