Analysis: Governing in reaction mode, and always a beat or two behind

A line of nearly 100 cars formed at a COVID-19 testing site Friday at Barbara Jordan Elementary School in Austin. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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“We’ll leave the light on for you” is a motel chain’s slogan. It also appears to be a principal coronavirus measure for the state of Texas, where the number of available hospital beds is more influential with top leaders than the number of sick or dying Texans.

It’s one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s key measures of how things are going: How many beds are still available for treating COVID-19 patients? And it’s the defensive answer to the question of the moment in Texas: How did a state that apparently had a leash on the virus in April manage to cut it loose in May and June?

The Texas resurgence was predictable. Local officials who wanted stronger rules on masks and crowds and social distancing — in both big and small Texas cities and counties — were right after all. And Abbott, who blocked local governments from acting on their concerns about the coronavirus, waited until case numbers, infection rates and hospitalizations jumped.

You can get ready when a storm is coming or wait until it blows your roof off. Abbott, who’s been reinstalling some of the regulatory safeguards he dismantled in May, dithered until the wind was blowing.

Even as that was happening, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was whistling through the graveyard, saying on talk TV on Thursday that the Texas numbers are rising, but not alarming. “We have seen a spike in cases,” he said on Fox News. “We expected that, because we’re now testing almost 35,000 a day ... so we expected those numbers to go up. Our hospitalizations are up. But here’s the good news. The good news is, we’re not seeing it translate to the ICU units or into fatalities.”

That’s true statewide, but some localities are reviving plans for hospital overflow, in facilities like NRG Stadium, where the Houston Texans play, and the Austin Convention Center. Abbott ordered an end to elective surgeries in four big counties to preserve space.

One number that Abbott has focused on crossed the governor’s red line this week. The seven-day average of “positivity” rates — the ratio of positive COVID-19 tests to all tests given — zipped past 10% for the first time since mid-April.

On Friday morning, the governor ordered the state’s bars to close by noon and closed river-raft companies. “If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars, now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting,” he told El Paso's KVIA-TV that evening.

The state’s restaurants are supposed to dial it back Monday, allowing 50% dining room occupancy instead of 75% occupancy. Some of the would-be diners will be out in public anyhow, casting ballots in the primary runoff elections on the first day of early voting.

The state government that wants them to stay home whenever possible won’t allow most Texas voters to cast absentee ballots by mail. The operating theory seems to be that standing in line to vote is safer than sitting in a bar with a friend or eating a sandwich in a restaurant.

And that might actually be right — depending on the voting precinct, the bar and the restaurant — but it doesn’t mean the policy makes any real sense.

Abbott got laurels for his response to Hurricane Harvey (a response led by the local leaders whose areas were hit hardest by that storm). And the empathy from everyday Texans was better, too, perhaps because it’s easier to see the damage from a hurricane on TV than to see the ravages of an invisible virus. During Harvey, the pictures were of high winds and flooding. During this pandemic, they’ve often been of lines of people on foot or in their cars outside of grocery stores, voting stations and food banks.

Maybe people have to see it to believe it. The state’s restrictions were working pretty well. After a month, the governor — hoping to revive the state’s economy — began easing up, slowly and then rapidly. The coronavirus made its comeback, slowly and then rapidly — probably a mix of opening the state’s businesses and other institutions and of people gathering in restaurants, demonstrations, parks and beaches.

Every step of this has been more reaction than part of a plan. The rise of the disease led to restrictions. The fall of the economy led to reopening. And here we are again, reacting to the pandemic that never left.

All that changed was the response.