Texas Gov. Greg Abbott holds COVID-19 test collection vials. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)
Texas is one of the worst-hit states in the country for COVID-19. On Tuesday, the state broke its record high of 5,000 new infections in a single day. But as we know, everything is bigger in Texas — the next day, the state bested itself by racking up 6,200 new infections. It’s a disaster that Gov. Greg Abbott needs to take full responsibility for.
His decision to “temporarily pause” reopening as of Thursday morning, for instance, is meaningless. Texas is already in its last phase of reopening, and Abbott has no desire to reverse the fact that all businesses have been allowed to operate at 50% capacity since early June.
Despite this mess, however, Abbott has continued to point fingers at anyone but himself — he blamed young people for not sanitizing their hands enough and lamented on KBTX that “there remain a lot of people in the state of Texas who think that the spread of COVID-19 is really not a challenge.” Abbott’s epiphany that “there is never a reason for you to have to leave your home unless you do need to go out” is not a sign of repentance. Rather, it is his attempt to distract people from his mismanagement of the coronavirus response in Texas and his exaltation of personal liberties at the expense of public health.
Dealing with a pandemic requires a communal effort. Abbott, on the contrary, has embraced a hyper-individualist, “each person for themselves” mindset that has undermined societal cooperation. For example, his failure to issue a stay-at-home order until April 2, weeks into the pandemic, undermined statewide coordination by throwing the coronavirus response to local leaders, who sent mixed messages and offered a patchwork response that dashed any real efforts to lock down.
Dallas County, for instance, quickly took action. By March 12, County Judge Clay Jenkins had restricted large gatherings and ordered bars and restaurants to close (with the exception of takeout orders). In neighboring Collin County, however, County Judge Clay Hill decided to stubbornly hold out on an order, keeping the door open for people to cross county lines and gather there instead.
It was an infuriating period of time. As someone who is quarantining in Texas with at-risk individuals who need medical care, I sat and watched as my county commissioner boasted about crowded parking lots on his official Facebook page. “Particularly excited at the full Home Depot,” he wrote, expressing how happy he was that our county judge “didn’t copy the Dallas order.” It was a subtle reminder that for some, their desire to stroll into a Home Depot is more important than someone else’s need for hospitals to be free enough of COVID-19 cases for elective surgeries to resume.
As a result of Abbott’s intransigence, Texas was one of the last states to issue a stay-at-home order. He then foolishly allowed that same order to expire just weeks later, on April 30. Texas has continued its rapid push to reopen since then, despite its sharp rise in cases and hospital intensive care units that are nearing capacity. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that local businesses were hit hard by pandemic-related restrictions and continue to struggle — but a second surge in Texas, in no small part due to its rush to reopen, will hurt those businesses even more in the long run, not to mention adding to the preventable loss of life that has already taken place.
Most recently, Abbott has refused to make masks mandatory statewide — a step that could help businesses stay open by slowing the spread of COVID-19. He even went so far as to issue an executive order forbidding local governments from penalizing those who refused to wear masks, even as city and county officials asked for the ability to do so (an issue that has been resolved, but not by Abbott).
Personal liberties are important. But what we’ve seen in Texas’ response to the coronavirus is the damage that hyper-individualism can do and has done to this country. We are now at a point where being asked to wear a small piece of fabric on our faces for the sake of protecting other people from a life-threatening virus is too much to ask, despite its proven effectiveness. After all, there is a particular symbolism in the fact that masks are worn more to protect others than to protect yourself.
Hyper-individualism tricks people into believing that their lives are separate from those around them. In reality, our liberty and livelihoods are intertwined with one another. Being a part of a society means that there are times when we should make sacrifices for the good of the whole, despite our individual right not to. It’s a point that Abbott seems to recognize when he shames Texans that “aren’t taking COVID-19 seriously” — but not one that has characterized his disaster of a coronavirus response.