Coronavirus and local control

From Politico, evidence that there are no small-government “conservatives” in pandemic self-isolation foxholes:

Texas is a big state with a proud small-government philosophy. And that’s being tested by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Strict bans on public gatherings to curtail the virus’ reach and widespread testing and treatment run counter to the politics of top Texas officials. Instead they’re calling on local officials to lead the response.

As governors in states including New York and California have imposed statewide measures such as closing schools and limiting commerce, Texas leaders have been reluctant to set restrictions conservative voters might consider draconian and business leaders oppose. They’ve also opposed steps to expand health insurance coverage.

Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration Friday — after dozens of states already had done so — and activated the National Guard on Tuesday, after more than a dozen states already had. State officials have yet to impose statewide limits on public gatherings, close schools or beaches or issue a special open enrollment period for health insurance, as California, New York and other big states have. And some health providers say Texas has been slow to boost coronavirus testing capacity and help them meet equipment needs.

“In this instance, President Trump is right: Governors need to step up,” Clay Jenkins, a Democrat and Dallas County’s top elected official, said in an interview. “When it comes to stemming the tide of the loss of life that we’re staring at, the governor is in a unique position to act.”

Abbott is fully in charge of the state’s response, because as part of the small-government philosophy, the state’s Legislature meets only in odd years for 140 days. So far, more than 60 coronavirus cases and one death have been confirmed in the state. Abbott said he expects the number of cases to explode next week as more testing capacity comes online and more diagnoses are counted.

Abbott, who has been governor for five years, tends to shine in moments of crisis. He’s been relatively hands-off during legislative sessions, but has played an active role in managing during disaster. Abbott earned praise for providing a steady hand during Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in 2017.

But the swift-spreading coronavirus public health crisis is catching Texas unprepared. The state, which didn’t expand Medicaid, has the highest uninsured rate in the country meaning millions of people don’t have doctors to call if they show symptoms. And Abbott has opposed local paid sick leave ordinances, which could encourage sick people to stay home and keep from spreading the virus, saying they hamper business growth.


Abbott’s office says the governor believes in taking a decentralized approach letting local officials take the lead in imposing restrictions and relying on private companies to help boost testing capacity.

Several Texas cities and counties have already closed schools and limited public gatherings. That includes Austin, which issued an order Tuesday banning gatherings of more than 10 people and shutting down restaurants and bars through early May.

“County judges and mayors have done a very good job in listening to local health officials,” Abbott’s spokesman John Wittman said in an interview. “What is best in Dallas may not be best for Amarillo or Abilene.”

Those of you who are old enough to remember the last couple of legislative sessions have likely done a spit-take to the sound of a record scratch upon hearing those words. But they’re not the first time they have been uttered. From the Trib, plowing a similar furrow three days earlier:

Abbott’s office, asked about the local protocols, said Monday that cities and counties “have done a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities” and nodded to how helpful local decision-making can be in a state as large as Texas. That approach is in stark contrast to Abbott’s recent attitude toward local control. In the past few years, he has routinely sparred with mayors and backed several laws that chipped away at the power of cities and counties.

“Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said. “These cities and counties are following the proper protocol and guidance that they are receiving from their local health departments.”

Abbott’s push for local decision-making comes as the nation’s top infectious disease expert said the most effective way to stop spread of COVID-19 may be a 14-day nationwide shutdown.

So, local control is best when tough decisions that Greg Abbott doesn’t want to have to make need to be made. Otherwise, cities and counties need to stop thinking and acting in their own best interests and let Greg Abbott and the Republican Party do all of that for them. Could someone please make sure to have multiple large multi-colored printouts of those John Wittman quotes plastered all around the Capitol next year? Thanks. The Observer, which goes into a lot more detail, has more.

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One Response to Coronavirus and local control

  1. wphdmphd says:

    Harris County and Dallas County are bigger (more populous) than many sovereign nation-states and members of the United Nations aka countries.

    Let Greg Abbott follow the lead of the big counties if he is up to it. He got off to a late start, but better late than not at all. In the meantime, ….


    At least half of the population has an AVERSION to Trump and to Abbott, and doesn’t want to be told by them to wash hands or anything else.

    Like staying in place or practice social distancing.

    Lina Hidalgo doesn’t have those NEGATIVES and can establish rapport with the entire community, become a crisis manager and persuader-in-chief for all residents, not just those who voted for her (without knowing who she is, mostly).

    Judge Hidalgo is in a unique position to urge the importance of reducing movement and increasing social distancing, and thereby achieve voluntary compliance before inevitably more drastic measure have to be imposed and backed up with threat of force and fines to protect each and all. Let the law enforcement people and medical leaders stand with her, observing the recommended safe distance, and leave no doubt that she is in charge and leader of a team committed to fight the virus–and not reporters or the “unfair” media–or political opponents, for that matter.


    Now that Dallas has moved to curtail toilet paper hoarding, will Houston Mayor Turner threaten criminal prosecution and jail for all who wonder whether toilet paper rationing is also coming to Houston?

    Looks like Turner has been a politician too long, and has apparently learned every dirty trick: like denouncing people who might disagree with him as Russian agents spreading disinformation. A fake-news denouncer in chief. That’s bad enough at the national level. We don’t need a local copy cat.

    And how does chasing rumors and then publicly denying them help? It will disseminate the rumors more widely to folks who would not otherwise have been exposed to them. – Assuming they are even properly characterized as rumors.
    Policy responses will likewise have to be dynamic.

    With a novel virus, a lot remains unknown, and even the experts are gaining new insights every day. For example, it was not understood until recently that the virus can spread through people who show no symptoms. This has huge implications for optimizing the containment strategy. Seemingly healthy people are walking pathogen-carriers (killers) without anyone knowing who they are in the absence of broad-sweeping testing capacity (or at least random sample testing capability).


    Wisely, Judge Lina Hidalgo has not limited her options as far as what might be needed in the near future, and Governor Cuomo in New York will be forgiven for playing semantics with the day-by-day escalation of increasingly restrictive measures (closing “the valve” being is favored metaphor).

    Cuomo also made it clear that I TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THIS.

    That’s the mark of leadership. Being willing to take unpopular decisions when they are imperative in light of the best available evidence and expert advice, and being willing to face the consequences. And refraining from blame-casting in the interim.

    Hidalgo should follow the example of Cuomo and be more proactive; request the cooperation of local media for regular TV addresses and directly speak to the residents of the county in English and Spanish sequentially. She will have instant credibility with much of the Hispanic population even if it is the first time they see her on TV. Much of this population is best reached (or only) through Spanish language mass media. And being a women is likely to make her more effective community-wide, rather than less.


    As a FRESH FACE in local politics, and without partisan political baggage (unlike other local Democrats), she is well-positioned to drive home the IMPERATIVE of social distancing and the MESSAGE that the only way to reduce the spread of the disease is by each individual doing their part—by adjusting their behavior to protect themselves, their family, and all others. And she can preach that message with equal effect in English and Spanish, without coming across as preachy.


    That’s where each individual can and will make a difference. That’s the only way to slow the spread of the epidemic, and the only way to dampen the forthcoming surge in demand and strain on the hospital system that will soon be overwhelmed.

    But some people need more nudging than others to do the right thing. And if repeated appeals to both self-interest and community spirit (or “solidarity” as Europeans might say) do not achieve compliance with restrictions necessary to contain the epidemic, coercion and threat of adverse consequences must in due course follow to protect all, most notably those at greater risk of a severe disease progression and possibly death.

    Doing the right thing by reducing interpersonal contacts and practicing safe social interaction (social distancing) means saving lives.

    Everyone can be a hero. That should be the message of hope in this dire situation.

    You can be one too.

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