April 23, 2020
TO: Interested Parties
FR: Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Manny Garcia
Subject: Governor Abbott’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis
Texans are anxious to get back to work, carry on with our lives, and rebuild our communities amidst the coronavirus pandemic. That’s why Texas Democrats are fighting for a robust response that includes widely-available testing, unprecedented resources for our healthcare system, cash in the hands of everyday Texans, support for front-line workers, and a recovery program that puts people first. However, as difficult as it may be, Texas must wait for the right time to reopen. If our leadership does not heed the advice of public health officials, we risk an even deeper public health and economic catastrophe. Lives are on the line.
As Governor Abbott, in lockstep with President Trump, rushes to reopen Texas for business against the advice of experts and medical professionals, it’s important to note that his management of this coronavirus crisis has failed Texans time and time again.
According to public health officials, reopening Texas too early, as Abbott began last week, “risks a new surge of cases and deaths,” threatening not just the public health, but also the health of the economy in the long term. Experts agree that prematurely lifting social distancing measures “would wip[e] out a big swath of people of all ages.” Abbott’s order breaks from other governors by putting short-term profits over lives. In a catch-22, Abbott based his shortsighted decision-making on the severely underreported number of cases in Texas, which in turn is due to his administration’s failure to adequately test.
Abbott’s foolhardy decision is not an isolated incident. Governor Abbott has consistently turned a blind eye to the severity of the pandemic while cynically exploiting the crisis for his own political gain.
Abbott’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been ranked as among the worst in the nation. According to one political scientist, he has done “a poor job of executing [his] state[’s] response.” Under Abbott’s leadership, Texas has “consistently been a step behind other states.” Instead of taking a proactive approach to the crisis, Abbott shifted the burden to municipalities. Instead of providing Texans clear guidance, Abbott chose to issue confusing and uncertain orders. Instead of providing strong leadership, Abbott instead chose to posture for the cameras by making jokes and meaningless gestures.
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick recently suggested that “grandparents . . . would be willing to risk their health and even lives in order for the United States to ‘get back to work,’” creating national outrage. Patrick later doubled down on his comments, claiming that “there are more important things than living.” In a press conference, Abbott refused to disavow these comments when directly questioned. Governor Abbott may not use Patrick’s words, but his message is the same. Texans should die for other people’s money.
Abbott has consistently demonstrated adherence to this callous value system:
Corporate “Strike Force”
In preparation for reopening the state, Abbott appointed a 41-member “strike force.” The composition of the “strike force” makes Abbott’s priorities clear. Nearly ⅔ of the members have donated to Abbott’s campaign. “Strike force” members have contributed over $6 million just to Abbott.
The “strike” force is composed of corporate executives. The governor’s own website admits as much. Not one small business owner, local official, or labor leader is on Abbott’s list. Abbott clearly highly values the perspectives of corporate CEOs and millionaire campaign donors while leaving the opinions of small businesses, localities, or ordinary Texans completely unrepresented.
Lack of Testing
As of 4/22/20, over 21,000 Texans have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, with 543 reported deaths. That number is likely “much higher” due to undercounting and a lack of testing. Texans are being tested at the second-lowest rate in the country. While Texas has tested for the virus a rate of 327 per 100,000 people, other states have tested as many as six times more people per capita. Abbott had previously claimed that “everyone who needs a . . . test will get one.” These words ring hollow. Even Texans who meet the state’s strict testing criteria, like medical professionals, are unable to get tested. While “the stakes for better testing could not be higher,” Governor Abbott continues to “downplay any problems with testing.”
Racial and Socioeconomic Disparities
Nor has the virus affected everyone equally. It is “alarming” that black and Hispanic Americans are much likelier to be affected by the disease. Yet–in Texas, the disparate racial impact of the novel coronavirus is currently unknown due to poor data collection. Governor Abbott’s administration has chosen to obfuscate the virus’s disparate impact on black and Hispanic Texans by refusing to collect necessary demographic data.
Texas politicians John Cornyn, Ted Cruz, and Kathaleen Wall have repeatedly made racist and false comments blaming the pandemic on China and Chinese culture. This rhetoric has led to violence and hate crimes against Asian-Americans. Meanwhile, Governor Abbott has been silent and has refused to condemn his fellow Republicans for these disgusting statements.
Coronavirus also disproportionately affects the elderly. Older adults are at much higher risk of death or more severe illness from the virus. Meanwhile, 13% of Texas nursing homes have at least one confirmed case of the virus. Nursing homes are “hotbeds” for the novel coronavirus. Texas “stands out for its limited release of information,” as Governor Abbot’s administration has refused to “share comprehensive data on nursing homes, as other states have done.” In doing, so, Governor Abbott leaves elderly Texans at higher risk and Texas families in the dark, with no way to know whether a loved one is at risk of illness or death.
Abbott’s response to these stark disparities has been unserious and insulting. When questioned about the disparate impact of the coronavirus on minority communities, Abbott’s response was to flippantly remark that “by the way, my chief of staff happens to be a Hispanic.”
Reproductive and Criminal Justice Rights
Instead of taking strong action to alleviate the crisis, Abbott has cynically taken advantage of the pandemic to achieve his long-standing political goals. Abbott has long been opposed to reproductive rights. During the coronavirus pandemic, Abbott signed an executive order to prevent Texas women from obtaining abortions, deeming them not “medically necessary.” This was a calculated political move not intended to protect public health, but to advance partisan political goals in the guise of disaster response.
Similarly, Abbott has long been opposed to meaningful criminal justice reform. In March, Abbott overrode judicial discretion and issued an executive order preventing the release of certain prisoners who are unable to pay bail. This order is not only an infringement on the separation of powers, but is out of step with federal guidance. Abbott creates a two-tiered justice system, in which those with access to money are protected, while those without money are left to grow ill and die.
Unemployment and Lack of Healthcare Benefits
Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the country, in large part due to Abbott’s poor policy decisions. Abbott has been one of the nation’s staunchest opponents of expanding Medicaid and has consistently opposed paid sick leave. Abbott’s policy choices exacerbate the crisis. Texans without health insurance are likely unable to afford testing and treatment. Texans without sick leave are likely to work while sick, devastating their own and the public health.
As hundreds of Texans die from the virus, millions more have been left unemployed in its wake. More Texans filed for unemployment in March than in all of 2019. Since March 14, over 1 million Texans have applied for unemployment. This number is likely much higher still. Almost 90% of Texans who have tried to call into the Texas Workforce Commission have been answered with a busy signal. The Governor is responsible for appointing all three heads of the Commission. The Texas Workforce Commission failed to upgrade its “outdated and broken” unemployment benefits system. Abbott’s hand-picked Commissioners were “well-aware of [these] shortcomings.” This failure leaves unemployed Texans “locked . . . out of the system.”
While even Republican-controlled states around the country adapt their election procedures to ensure their citizens can exercise their right to vote without risking their lives, Governor Abbott merely delayed Texas’ primary runoff election from May 26 to July 14. Since that decision, his administration has suggested a wait-and-see approach, largely leaving county election officials to fend for themselves.
Just this week, Governor Abbott’s Attorney General, Ken Paxton, intervened in a court case to fight against common-sense measures to ensure every Texan’s right to vote is preserved. Moments before the judge signaled an upcoming ruling, the Attorney General’s office issued guidance barring voters from requesting a mail ballot if they are social distancing and fear contracting the coronavirus if they go to their polling place. He even threatened to prosecute those that help voters in this predicament apply for a mail ballot. His administration would have Texans choose between their health and their democracy, much like voters in Wisconsin were forced to make that choice.