Lone Star response to COVID-19 strikes a balance: “Stay home if you can”

Here in Texas, the state has not been placed under lockdown. There is a real struggle going on between those who prefer to leave questions of restrictions to local authorities and those who want the heavy hand of the centralized state government to rule.

Texas is America’s largest red state. Governor Greg Abbott is known for being a calm leader during times of crisis in the state. Abbott received mostly good grades for his handling of Hurricane Harvey, for example. He sends the Texas National Guard to the southern border when it is warranted to assist in handling large numbers of migrants arriving who seek asylum or try to enter the state illegally. In other words, he is not afraid to make big decisions but he acts with a cool head. He’s doing the same during the coronavirus pandemic. He has activated the Texas National Guard to help cope with the increase of COVID-19 cases that will come.

For now, local authorities are making decisions about how extensive lockdowns are in communities large and small. Three of the 10 most populous cities in the United States are in Texas. My city, Houston, is the nation’s fourth-largest city. San Antonio is seventh and Dallas is ninth on the list. Austin, the state capitol, is number 11 on the list. You get the point. There are several large metropolitan areas in the state.

The state isn’t on lockdown but cities are taking precautions against the spread of COVID-19 by shutting down restaurants and bars, clubs, gyms, shopping malls, and even churches are no longer holding services. All of that has happened here. Schools are shut down, some until the end of the school year.

A public service announcement (PSA) has been made to try and calm fears and encourage some common sense behavior. Texas native and resident, actor Matthew McConaughey is the voice of the PSA. The message is simple – medical professionals and first responders are true heroes. As we honor them, we can help by staying home “if we can”. The PSA is titled “Let’s Stay Home”.

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Not everyone can do that, of course, and we really don’t want essential services to be compromised. The economic hit the state and the country is taking during this pandemic is unimaginable but tough decisions have to be made. Somewhere between a complete state shutdown and allowing cities and communities to do what is most acceptable to its residents is a fine line that is being straddled by elected officials. I admit that I criticized our mayor for not moving faster in shutting down dine-in service in restaurants and bars, especially as Spring Break began here. Houston is a huge restaurant town. The governor helped where he could – he lifted restrictions on selling liquor with take-out meals and delivery orders, for example. This will allow businesses to boost their bottom line while providing customers with creature comforts.

The city of Houston is not under lockdown. The governor holds daily press conferences, as does the mayor. We are in uncharted territory and frankly, it feels like we’re flying by the seat of our pants. I’m not sure if some of the closures will ease up after the fifteen-day time frame is reached. That is what fuels fears, the uneasiness we all feel whether we admit it or not. My dentist sent out an email yesterday outlining her thoughts. She has decided to shut down her practice for the next three weeks to patients but will remain open for staff. This allows them time for training and preparations, as well as keeping the staff employed. My doctor’s office is open. I had an appointment for a regular blood draw this morning – an annual occurrence to monitor that current medications are working as prescribed – and I canceled it. I don’t feel like it’s worth the increased risk of exposure to germs. I can do it after everything becomes more clear.

At a televised town hall on Thursday, Governor Abbott outlined where the state is now. He also revealed that he has been tested and his test results came back negative. His executive order goes until April 3. It is not a shelter in place order. People can go to grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, and other everyday errands as they are necessary.

Abbott also announced that state health commissioner John Hellerstedt declared a public health disaster earlier Thursday. Abbott said it is his understanding that the last time such a declaration was made in Texas was 1901.

Abbott ended the action-packed day with the hourlong town hall, which was hosted by Nexstar in Austin and broadcast live on 14 stations across the state as well as online. In addition to making the estimate of likely tens of thousands of Texas cases in two weeks, Abbott revealed at the town hall that he has been tested for the virus and that the results came back negative.

Detailing the executive order earlier Thursday, Abbott said that while dining in at restaurants is prohibited, takeout is “highly encouraged.” At the town hall, he added that those restaurants that violate the order could lose their licenses to operate, warning that “literally their life as an ongoing business is on the line.” As for whether takeout could ultimately be banned, Hellerstedt said at the town hall that the state is keeping its options open, but the “situation as we see it right now doesn’t call for that.”

Thousands of new cases are expected to be recorded in the next couple of weeks as more testing becomes available. Critics grouse about what they describe as the governor’s slowness in responding to the pandemic. A piece in Politico does the bidding of critics.

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.

And the same article in Politico gives credibility to claims that because Texas didn’t go for the Medicaid expansion offered to states during Obama’s presidency, the state is now ill-prepared to handle the pandemic. Never waste a crisis, right, Democrats?

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.

Obamacare destroyed small-town and rural medical practices and shuttered hospitals while kicking people off insurance coverage due to increased premiums, but, hey, blame a conservative governor for abiding by a different approach. The state has a healthy rainy day fund. Let’s wait and see how the state’s response to the pandemic continues to play out before we launch into re-writing history.

Meanwhile, I appreciate McConaughey’s participation in spreading a calm voice and asking Texans to do what they can to help. Stay home, if you can. We’ll get through this.

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