Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
If you’d like to listen to the column, just click on the play button below.
(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)
Now that he has yielded his power to jail people for civil disobedience, Gov. Greg Abbott is speaking softly and carrying a small stick. Violate an executive order and if anyone dares to punish you, it’ll just be a fine. Maybe.
If state District Judge Eric Moyé’s recent experience is the precedent, judges in Texas face the governor’s wrath if they play by the governor’s rules. And the rest of us got a clear signal: The government pronouncements about the coronavirus might be more in the realm of suggestion than mandate.
Wear a mask, please, or don’t. Limit contact and commerce, if you please.
These are Colosseum rules, where the fate of the gladiators is determined not by law but by the roar of the crowd. Sometimes the partisans yell for the lions, sometimes for the hairstylists. You don’t know what’s going to happen until you’re in the ring.
None of this will matter if the governor turns out to be right about easing his restrictions on what businesses can open and to how many of their customers at a time. Maybe weaker restrictions won’t fuel the spread of coronavirus after all. Perhaps none of us is going to need a mask anymore — or at least most of the time — unless we’re bank robbers or it’s Halloween.
He has already allowed some places to open and promised further openings within the week. But Abbott has disarmed himself. A second wave of the coronavirus, if there is one, might require new restrictions or a return to the old ones. After the Dallas hair episode, Texans have reason to take pandemic orders with a grain of salt.
(Shortest possible recap, just in case: A Dallas hairstylist defied government orders to keep her shop closed, was ordered to comply, tore up the order, was sent to jail for contempt of court, and was freed after activists spooked Abbott into taking incarceration off the list of punishments for ignoring his orders and after the Texas Supreme Court vacated Moyé’s sentence.)
All of that was interesting, for about a week. But Abbott’s lack of resolve, or of planning for the future, is the part that will stick. He and others were critical of the judge’s decision, but it was within the range of what Abbott himself had imposed. When he buckled, the crowd shouting for haircuts and other liberties knew they were at the beginning of a winning streak.
In the three-way tag-team wrestling match of pandemic, the economy and personal freedom, the economy and personal freedom are now dominating political and public attention. Top state officials have moved their focus from dampening the pandemic to their worries about reviving the economy and mollifying Texans who think the government reactions to the coronavirus unconstitutionally cramp their individual rights.
First came the floundering about which leaders would lead the response. The feds pushed it to the states. Texas leaders responded by leaving the initial responses to county judges and mayors, whose responses ranged from business as usual to orders to close nonessential businesses, to wear masks, and to stay at home when possible and 6 feet from each other when staying at home wasn’t an option. State and federal governments reasserted themselves, adopting much of what the local officials had started.
Those things were effective, as it turned out: That famous curve of increases in infections and deaths flattened. But while that was addressing the first concern — health — the economy quickly curdled. People lost jobs, or lost hours and pay. Some of the businesses that closed temporarily have started to announce they will never reopen.
Physical and social distancing at home and in the marketplace might be effective, but those policies are also costly. People who aren’t getting sick — even if that’s a result of those policies — get antsy. They’re restricted, without tangible rewards. They want haircuts, restaurant meals, movies.
Success on one front turns attention to another. When fears about health fade, attention turns to the economy. Opening the economy too slowly sparks old arguments about balancing individual and community interests. Opening the economy too quickly accelerates the spread of coronavirus.
It’s hard to govern under those circumstances, even if everyone follows the rules — or believes there are consequences for those who don’t.