Garcia: Abbott put politics before science, and Texas is paying the price

Greg Abbott doesn’t do apologies. He doesn’t issue mea culpas. He doesn’t acknowledge mistakes or concede defeat.

So we have to read between the lines of Thursday’s announcement from the Texas governor to truly see what’s going on.

Abbott revealed that in light of the disturbing recent explosion of COVID-19 infection rates across the state, he was pushing the pause button on the phased reopening of the state’s economy that he orchestrated over the past two months.

He also temporarily banned elective surgeries in some cities to free up increasingly scarce hospital beds.

This is as close as we’ll ever get to Abbott admitting he messed up. But, of course, he did mess up. Our governor played Spin the Bottle with the worst global pandemic of the past century, and Texas is in a world of hurt right now.

Over the past two days, this state has reported more than 11,000 new confirmed cases of COVID-19. That’s more than what we encountered over the first 14 days of April.

Over the past two weeks, the number of Texans hospitalized with the coronavirus has more than doubled — from 2,008 to 4,739. During that same period, COVID-19 hospitalizations in the San Antonio area have gone up by nearly 500 percent.

This is a disaster that anyone with a clear-eyed focus on reality could have seen coming.

Abbott, after establishing a set of benchmarks in March that the state needed to reach before reopening our shuttered economy, simply threw them out a month later — just because he didn’t want to wait any longer.

After promising to let science guide policy, he made a monumental policy move based on politics and tried to force the science to conform.

He appeased the avatars of false choices — the ones who tried to convince us that we had to pick between jobs and public health, when it should have been obvious that a major surge in COVID-19 infections would also devastate business activity.

Economic stability could only come after we attained some degree of public health stability.

Here’s where Abbott differs with Dan Patrick, his bombastic frenemy in the lieutenant governor’s office.

With Patrick, you always know what you’re getting. Patrick is a relentless culture warrior who doesn’t care how irresponsible he sounds. He’ll come right out and tell you that he’s willing to sacrifice lives if it means that Hobby Lobby gets to reopen.

Abbott, however, fancies himself a statesman. He wanted to project prudent, mature and thoughtful leadership. But he also wanted to pacify the base that he and Patrick share, much of which tended to see COVID-19 as just a flu that had been overhyped by progressive politicians eager to snatch away our individual liberties.

Abbott vacillated on imposing statewide stay-at-home orders, letting mayors and county judges take the political hit for doing the medically responsible thing. Even when he finally issued stay-at-home mandates, at the end of March, he refused to accept the term.

He postponed primary runoff elections but resisted persistent calls to make this year’s voting process safer by enabling no-excuse applications for mail-in voting.

Abbott was at his most Abbott-ian when it came to the case of Shelley Luther, a Dallas hair salon owner, who became an instant celebrity by thumbing her nose at the governor’s orders and reopening her salon at a time when only essential businesses were allowed to operate.

Abbott took Luther’s side and slammed the state district judge who merely tried to enforce the governor’s order. In other words, Abbott was only too happy to see someone make a mockery of his mandates.

The message to entrepreneurs across the state who were dutifully following the rules and trying to keep people safe: The governor thinks you’re a bunch of chumps.

Abbott played similar games when it came to protective face coverings, which might just be our best hope to slow the spread of the virus.

He encouraged people to wear masks in public but blocked city and county leaders from requiring them, even in the face of a June 16 letter from nine Texas mayors imploring him to grant them local discretion over the issue.

Then, the next day, he allowed Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to impose a mask requirement for businesses and suggested that Wolff had found the missing Easter egg that his peers couldn’t locate.

No wonder that the word most often heard from frustrated Texas elected officials to describe Abbott’s COVID-19 policies has been “confusing.”

Abbott works hard to project assurance at all times, but he’s clearly been shaken by the recent COVID-19 surge.

Last week, he blamed bars — which he allowed to reopen five weeks ago — for not following safety guidelines.

“A lot of people,” Abbott said, “have let down their guard.”

He was right, but, after all, they were only following the governor’s example.

Gilbert Garcia is a columnist covering the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Gilbert, become a subscriber. ggarcia@express-news.net | Twitter: @gilgamesh470