Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s reluctance to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order is understandable, on one hand. On the other, and in context to what he and other leaders in state government were saying fairly recently, it’s amazing.
At a news conference Sunday, Abbott declined to follow the lead of other states with a statewide shelter-in-place order. But he warned Texans that it could be coming if they don’t heed his previous orders on Friday that limited social gatherings to under 10 people, closed schools, bars and gyms and banned dine-in eating at restaurants.
“Stricter standards will be taken, if necessary,” Abbott said. “If you don’t have an essential reason for leaving your home, you should not be leaving your home.”
There are several good arguments for allowing cities and counties to decide for themselves whether to, and to what extent, they should attempt to restrict movement and the general right to gather as people see fit.
Texas is a big state with many differences from place to place, including population densities and the level of reliance on public transportation.
What makes perfect sense in Harris, Tarrant, Travis and Galveston counties might not make any sense at all in Brewster and Pecos counties, where social distancing comes with the territory.
There might well be some virtue in not kicking every leg from under the economy everywhere all at the same time.
Meanwhile, many local governments have responded in ways local leaders argue are necessary and proper for their own jurisdictions.
Galveston, where thousands of tourists flow in and out like the tides, took steps early to close bars, tourist venues and other gathering places, to restrict access to the public beaches and to restrict restaurants to take-out and delivery services only.
Other cities in the county have, so far, taken fewer such steps and took them later. Still others as recently as Monday had taken none.
It’s very safe bet, almost a certainty, that all the local elected officials who made those hard decisions, issuing orders that will undermine the economic health of their communities and constituents in hopes of protecting their physical health, would have loved to have something sooner and something more than the suggestions the governor has managed so far.
It would have given them some political cover and provided a unified message.
If ever there was a time when the state of Texas could have been justified in assuming control over local authority, this was it. Instead, the governor chose to urge and suggest, leaving the hard work of deciding to mayors and county judges.
That might have been absolutely the right thing to do.
If, however, it was right thing during a global health crisis, it will still be the right thing when this crisis has passed.
What Abbott is relying on to work now during this state of emergency is the same “patchwork of local regulations” he was lamenting a few years ago when he argued elected city and county leaders couldn’t be trusted to regulate such things as single-use plastic bags, ride-hailing companies, short-term-rental operations, fracking and their own tax rates.
Perhaps in this crisis the governor has found a renewed respect for local control of local affairs and will stand down the assault on those concepts he had helped lead for at least two legislative sessions.
Whatever the case might be, the bottom line is that if local governments can be trusted to deal with COVID-19, they can be trusted to deal with everything else.
• Michael A. Smith