Every day for the past two weeks, Texas has set a new record for coronavirus hospitalizations. Since the state began tracking this metric in April, this number has not exceeded 2,000. Now the number of hospitalizations is over 5,000. In the Monday episode of What Next, I spoke to Ross Ramsey, the executive editor of the Texas Tribune, about how the state reached such a grim milestone. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: I want to focus a little bit on Houston because that’s where so many new cases are emerging right now. Harris County has this odometer developed to track the coronavirus threat level. And this weekend, you moved it to red, which was as high as you could go, right?
Ross Ramsey: It’s like the old thermometer they had after 9/11 to judge the level of threat. The county judge there, Lina Hidalgo, wanted this in place so that she could quickly communicate what the situation was. They are analyzing the number of ICU beds available. We are at 16th or 17th record-breaking day of new hospitalizations in Texas, and Houston has been feeling the worst part of that. That is what they are saying to their citizens: this is very dangerous right now. We are on high alert. Meanwhile, you hear from state and federal officials something a little different. And it’s confusing.
I am glad that we are talking about Lina Hidalgo, because I feel that she is an interesting character. Why has this county judge emerged as such a central figure?
Unincorporated Harris County, the part of Harris County that is not in the city of Houston or in any of the other small cities around it, actually has more population than Houston. The coronavirus knows no limits and does not respect them. And the person who holds the executive office over the largest number of people in that area, plus a governor, is the county judge. So she has been very, very active.
She is very young and speaks Spanish. I think he is 29?
And you’ve never seen her in public since this started without a mask, which is really interesting. He doesn’t even take off his mask when he’s on the microphone or on the podium. She has been very, very consistent in her messages. She has done all the things she tells people to do, which is not true for many other leaders.
You mentioned the masks. The masks are where she really started to get tangled up with the state government. She tried to require them for people in April, right? What happened when she did that?
We ran into this libertarian civil streak in Texas. Many people were upset at the idea that the government was telling them they had to wear a mask to get out. So a couple of governments, including Harris County, said: Well, we are going to require it. And the governor saidI am going to have a state executive order that prevents local governments, cities, and counties from imposing fines or penalties on people who do not wear masks. People should wear masks, but we won’t require it.
The governor is receiving a lot of pressure from the conservative end of his party to put personal liberties above restrictions. And as a political matter, it has tried to address that. But it means that you have to tell the county judges that they can’t do the things they’ve been trying to do, and now that we’re looking at the numbers in Texas, the county judges have been on the right track. If they could have done what they were trying to do, we might not have the numbers we have now. We may not be in the crisis situation that we are approaching now.
I returned to a video of Governor Greg Abbott’s meeting in May with President Donald Trump. And it’s weird to see him now because he looks like he’s taking a victory lap.
Leaving March, we were slow to set restrictions in Texas, but we have restrictions in place. And in early April, they had pretty much stuff locked up. And by the time you arrived in late April, it actually looked pretty good. Then they took their foot off the brake. And not only that, but they hit the gas. The Governor came out in late April and said we will have some stage reopens. They started doing that, and the pressure to do it more quickly increased very quickly. And so, the Governor really accelerated this phasing out of the restrictions.
They were looking at something they call the positivity rate, which is the ratio of positive coronavirus tests to all tests taken. If that’s more than 10 percent, you have problems. I think the last figure I saw was 13 percent. We have not seen 10 percent since early April. So you see how this curve goes. In mid-May, you started to see the Governor enter press conferences with a mask on, which we hadn’t been seeing before. We still haven’t seen the lieutenant governor with a mask on. The governor closed all bars on Friday. He told the restaurants to return it. And he found a way for local officials to require people to wear masks. He said that an individual cannot be required to wear a mask and that they cannot be fined or imprisoned if they do not, but a company can be required to require employees and customers to wear a mask.
It just seems really complicated because it relies on many people to do the work that the government might expect it to do.
Part of the problem here is that they have worked themselves in a place where the application is very difficult. We had this famous incident where beauty salons and hair salons were told not to open as part of the April restrictions. There was a stylist named Shelley Luther in the Dallas suburbs who basically said: I am going to open my living room, and figuratively raised his middle finger.
They took her to court. And the judge said: Look, the law here is clear. Governor’s order is that you cannot open. And she said that if you put that in a court order, I will challenge it. That is direct contempt of the court. So he put her in jail. It became this great thing of symbolic freedom. The very conservative lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, paid him bail to get her out of jail. And the governor at that time said: I will not allow local authorities, cities and counties to fine or imprison people for violating my executive orders.. It is as if she has removed her teeth.
The problem now is that the governor can make an order. And people can say: Maybe I will. Maybe it won’t. After his last order in bars, the mayor of Abilene said: We will not close our bars in Abilene. It is a great deal when a governor orders something and the mayor says we are not going to do that. You have already removed your ability to do something about it.
Do people see Abbott’s movements here as an admission of failure?
He actually said that about bars. I was on television in El Paso. And they asked him: Would you have done something different if you had done this again? He said, Yes, I don’t think I would have opened the bars.. That’s the closest it has come to a Hey i was wrong here.
I want to go back to an agent completely separate from the chaos, who is Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. And in Texas, the lieutenant governor has a lot of power and is more conservative than his governor. Last week, I was on Fox News and I was saying: Listen, we are not going to reverse ourselves. We will not go back. Can you talk about Patrick and his role here?
He is really the political leader of the most conservative part of the Republican Party. He is a former radio host on Houston. You see it a lot on cable television. People across the country knew him from before in the pandemic, when he suggested that he would rather some people die rather than destroy the economy to face the coronavirus. He’s been very defensive of people who ignore these kinds of restrictions and orders.
So has the governor lost control of his lieutenant governor?
I don’t think he was in control of his lieutenant governor. In Texas, it does not apply as a ticket, they are chosen individually. Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott are representatives of different parts of the Republican Party. Abbott is truly the most powerful Republican in office, but he is not the most adept Republican in office. It’s probably Dan Patrick. When you have long-running debates like how to deal with the coronavirus, and a speaker is Patrick and a speaker is Abbott, Patrick is more consistent, more effective, and leading the day in a way that limits what Greg Abbott can do.
Is Texas a warning to a state like New York that it is lifting the restrictions?
I think the restrictions have to be lifted taking into account the other numbers. There is a balance here. A devastated economy or a shattered social structure is as harmful and unhealthy as this disease. You have to balance these things in some way. But we keep rocking back and forth.
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