AUSTIN, Texas – Mayors are shuttering bars, governors are closing schools and President Donald Trump says avoid groups larger than 10 people. Rapidly across the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic is thrusting leaders at every level into hard decisions about where people can go, and how many at a time.
But not Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the chief executive in a state of 29 million people.
Texas has reported more than 80 cases of the virus and three deaths related to the virus that causes COVID-19. But even as more and more governors impose sweeping restrictions, Abbott has held firm on deferring decisions about school and business closures to local authorities across 254 counties. It has left the Republican as a major holdout among the dwindling ranks of governors who have defended having a patchwork of different public health restrictions, which in Texas has varied starkly even between neighboring cities as big as Dallas and Fort Worth.
On Wednesday, Abbott suggested his resistance was slipping as caseloads and criticism ticked upward. He said he would make an announcement Thursday but offered no details, only that cities and counties should quickly send him input.
“It's clear we've seen an increase,” Abbott said Wednesday.
His holdout has put Abbott at odds with other Republican governors who, after initial reluctance, are increasingly falling in line and imposing sweeping restrictions on daily life.
Abbott's position reflects Texas conservatives' strong feelings about local control, but also tracks with a governor who, unlike brasher predecessors such as Rick Perry, has spent five years in office cutting a lower profile. But as the nation mobilizes to try and contain a disease that doesn't abide by state lines, the sheer size of Texas make the stakes high.
With the absence of uniformity in safety measures, frustration and confusion was beginning to take root in some places.
As Houston this week closed every restaurant dining room in the nation's fourth-largest city, drinks were still being served along the brownish beaches in nearby Galveston, and county officials wondered aloud whether they even had the power to close bars and grind spring break to a halt.
In Dallas, “We've done all that we can,” County Judge Clay Jenkins said after limiting restaurants to takeout service and prohibiting crowds larger than 50 people. “But we need our governor and our regional partners to come together and the only way really to do that is through the state. We need the state to come in and lay out some parameters.”
Abbott, who is in his second term, has shown no intention of doing so, saying local health officials know their communities best.
He has declared a state of disaster, put the Texas National Guard on standby and waived scores of regulations aimed at getting doctors and supply trucks to the state faster. But he's left the most high-profile decisions to locals, even when they've come directly to him. He defended his approach again Wednesday, which came less than a week after he would not give either a GOP state senator or a small-town city administrator explicit guidance during a statewide conference call.
“They know their communities better than anybody else does,” Abbott said. “We're dealing with something, however, that is not just statewide in scope, not just nationwide in scope, but is worldwide in scope.”
For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild cases recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe ones can take three to six weeks to recover.
Abbott has not been alone, but an increasing number of governors are making sweeping calls. The latest includes South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, both Republicans, who on Tuesday ordered bars and restaurants closed in their states. Both have fewer cases than Texas. Most states also have ordered school closures.
Along the Texas coast in Galveston County, officials said this week that apart from not knowing if they had the authority to close down restaurants, they might be reluctant anyway.
"Let’s get past (state law) right now and talk about the U.S. Constitution, which forbids me from depriving you of liberty or property without due process," Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said.
Associated Press writer Juan A. Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.
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