Analysis: Fiddling while the pandemic rages

Gov. Greg Abbott holds a border security briefing with sheriffs from border communities at the Texas Capitol on July 10, 2021.
Gov. Greg Abbott holds a border security briefing with sheriffs from border communities at the Texas Capitol on July 10, 2021.

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State government wouldn’t be working this way during a hurricane.

You wouldn’t be watching the speaker of the House trying to chase down or arrest enough state representatives to get business done.

You wouldn’t see a governor ordering cities and counties not to mandate safety precautions, and those local governments suing the state government to allow them to intervene.

But this isn’t a hurricane. It’s a pandemic, and it’s quickly reaching crisis levels for the third time. The governor and the Legislature have been at this long enough — since at least March 2020 — to have turned what ought to be an emergency management and public health response into political fodder.

It has turned to self-parody. As COVID-19 cases rose and hospitalizations approached outright crisis, Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted a photo of himself playing the fiddle at a weekend political gathering.

Way to go, Nero.

COVID-19 is peaking for a third time since the beginning of the pandemic. That would be enough alone. But schools are opening, hospitals are overwhelmed and Texas has not put up as much resistance as it could have.

As of Monday, 44.5% of Texans, or 12.9 million people, had been fully vaccinated. So far, the state has seen 2.8 million confirmed cases of COVID-19. Millions of Texans remain unvaccinated, and kids younger than 12 are ineligible for shots.

That last group is about to gather for schooling, raising concerns among parents, teachers and other school staff who have an eye on the progress of the pandemic. The state has just under 5.4 million public school students, according to the Texas Education Agency. More than half of them — 2.9 million — are in pre-K through sixth grade. That’s 54.3% of the total, and they’re too young for coronavirus vaccinations.

What’s more, Abbott is sticking to his ban on mask mandates in schools. Some districts are defying him, saying they’ll require masks for students and school employees alike. The state hasn’t decided whether it will pay its share of public education costs for students attending online instead of in person. Schools in Texas are opening with a lot of basic pandemic-related questions still unanswered.

City and county governments that want to intervene with mask orders and other public health restrictions are taking the state to court over its restraints on their responses.

Texas is on its heels, reacting to rising troubles that, in some measure, it failed to prevent. Abbott has state agencies appealing to health care professionals to come to Texas to replenish hospital staffing. He’s asked hospitals to delay nonessential procedures to keep beds clear for COVID-19 patients. He’s urging local officials to use federal pandemic relief money to respond to the swell in caseloads.

With all of that going on, you might think this would have the full attention of the state Legislature. Like the statewide freeze in February, it’s a statewide problem — one that isn’t focused on one part of the state. But lawmakers are preoccupied with special sessions and partisan wrestling, with missing Democrats and a Republican speaker’s attempts to arrest them and bring them back to the Texas Capitol.

Hurricanes and most other emergencies don’t last for months. They tend to be sudden, to command everyone’s attention, to render political arguments temporarily trivial. The responses are usually quick — and much of the preparation is in place long before a storm lands.

The pandemic has lasted for well over a year. The responses have swung from “everybody stay home” to “everybody knows what to do without government orders,” with stops at every variable in between. The state’s politicians are stuck in their politics and in their court fights over which government is allowed to do what. It has become the kind of response they’re so careful to avoid when there’s a hurricane or another emergency.

Hospitals and medical people are responding, and schools and local governments are trying to respond, but it’s harder than it ought to be. They have a state government in their way.

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