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Analysis: A rising commotion in Texas’ scattershot response to the pandemic

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Texas bar owners and workers protested Tuesday at the state Capitol in Austin. Jordan Vonderhaar for the Texas Tribune

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DIY pandemic responses seem to be flourishing in Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott is trying to reinstate some of the coronavirus safety measures he put in place in late March and then mostly erased in May. He’s meeting a lot of resistance — a fair amount of it from the people in his GOP base.

Abilene initially said it wouldn’t enforce the governor’s close-the-bars order, and then apologized, sort of: “The City of Abilene never intended to imply an intention to disregard the Governor’s Executive Order, or support any kind of action by citizens or business owners in contradiction to the Executive Order. The City apologizes for any lack of clarity in earlier messaging on the matter.”

The city still won’t enforce Abbott’s order, leaving that to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and others, but said it will encourage its businesses and citizens to “use common sense” and to do what the governor says “to the best of their ability.”

Bar owners from all over the state are suing for the right to stay open during the pandemic. Here’s a choice quote about the governor from their lawyer, former Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill: “Why does he continue unilaterally acting like a king? He’s sentencing bar owners to bankruptcy.”

State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, took a swipe at the governor in a weekend tweet: “Pain. Frustration. Sadness. Confusion. Desperation. Anger. Just a few emotions I am hearing from East Tx business owners suffering from shutdown orders. @GovAbbott is taking their livelihoods with no compensation. Add me to the angry list. ENOUGH!”

Another, state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, tweeted his sentiments just after noon Sunday: “If I owned a bar, I would open it.”

Cain was one of the lawyers who represented Shelley Luther, the Dallas hairstylist who defied the governor’s business-closing orders in April and briefly went to jail for it. That stunt prompted Abbott to tell local officials they couldn’t jail or fine anyone for defying the governor’s own orders. Luther has been among the outspoken protesters on social media in recent days, saying the governor shouldn’t be closing bars and other businesses like this.

The clamor isn’t limited to drinking. That’s just the latest flash point.

Local officials in hot spots around Texas — big places like Houston and Dallas and smaller ones like Laredo, where there’s a new curfew in place — are straining against the governor’s proclamation that his orders prevent them from imposing stricter measures than the state has in place.

They’re pressing him to cut back on business reopenings and to allow them to impose stay-at-home orders. Some of them would like to require masks in public — another of the unexpectedly political controversies of the pandemic.

What a circus.

The governor’s bumpy ride of the last several weeks has engendered offers of unsolicited advice.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat, wants Abbott to call the Legislature back to work on COVID-19 responses and contends the Republican governor has stretched his emergency powers too far and for too long. Martinez Fischer is only one of 181 lawmakers, and he’s a Democrat, so you can read that either as a genuine offer to help or an opening criticism for the political cycle and next year’s legislative session.

On another front, a dozen and a half prominent education, business and civic groups are asking state leaders to put together a task force, presumably with their members on board, to figure out how to run public schools during a pandemic. They want to talk about everything from funding to teacher support to broadband and laptops and tablets for students at home — the whole enchilada.

The coronavirus seems to have vexed the state’s leaders, and it looks like everybody has an idea of what to do about it.