Abbott to Texans: Wear masks, or we're going to have to shut down again

Consider this Greg Abbott’s version of don’t make me stop this car and come back there. Frustration in Texas has been growing in direct proportion with rising hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19, enough so that the conservative governor of the still-red state now says it might take drastic action to get the pandemic back under control. With deaths hitting a new high yesterday, Abbott says a new statewide shutdown could be next unless Texans get serious about wearing masks and keeping up social-distancing protocols.

And that’s just based on the numbers we have now. Next week will look even worse, Abbott told KRIV in Houston:

As Texas on Thursday set single-day records for deaths from coronavirus and how many people the disease has put in the hospital, Gov. Greg Abbott was bracing for even more bad news.

“The numbers are going to look worse as we go into next week,” he told KRIV-TV in Houston late Thursday. …

Texans aren’t accustomed to wearing masks, but they’ve worked to contain spread in other countries and are the only recourse “to avoid having our economy shut down again,” he said on KRIV, the Houston Fox affiliate.

“The last thing we want to do is shut things down again,” Abbott said. “The only strategy we have to prevent that from happening is by everybody wearing a mask.”

Abbott’s not the only Texas authority warning of another shutdown. Former commerce secretary Don Evans, a member of Abbott’s task force, says they are keeping a close eye on numbers from the Midland-Odessa area. The virus is beginning to overwhelm hospitals in that area, and if capacity entirely disappears, Evans expects Abbott to impose a new shutdown:

“[Abbott]’s laser-focused on Midland-Odessa,” Evans said. “I also know that he’s saying that if we can’t turn this trend around in the next couple of weeks or so, there is going to be a serious threat the economy has to be shut down again.”

That’s partially because of the strain the virus is putting on local hospitals, he said.

“When you see beds begin to disappear that might be able to be available for somebody that, say, is in a car accident or has a heart attack or has something else — you have to keep beds available for that,” he said. “And when the hospitals get filled up with COVID-19 patients, that just doesn’t work.”

After Midland Memorial Hospital reported they’re treating 34 coronavirus patients – the most hospitalizations they’ve had throughout the pandemic – Abbott announced later on Thursday that certain counties would once again be required to halt elective surgeries, including Midland and Ector counties. There are exceptions only for surgeries that are immediately and medically necessary or life-saving, according to the executive order.

This is all part of the process for reopening, although this part involves the trip switches on it. The point of the original shutdown was to prepare enough resources in the short run in order to deal with mid- and long-term impacts of the pandemic. Reopen in phases, test and measure, and then adjust as necessary. In some states, it hasn’t been necessary to adjust backward. In New York, for instance, the numbers have been so encouraging that Andrew Cuomo accelerated some expansion of reopening protocols.

In Texas, though, the numbers are approaching the trip switches, and Abbott may be forced to act — at least in and around the hot spots. Texas is a big state and it’s not likely to need a statewide shutdown, but he could order reclosure in specific areas. That might be enough to emphasize the need for vigilance elsewhere, although one might think the spike in deaths and hospitalizations would have made that point obvious anyway.

That won’t go over well with the White House, nor with conservatives who have been arguing that we’re better off with a no-holds-barred reopening. That seems to have been what happened in some parts of Texas anyway, which might explain why their deaths and hospitalizations have gone up while other states (like Minnesota, for instance) have remained relatively flat while reopening under clearer guidelines. At this point, Abbott has more to worry about from Texans than he does from the White House, which is why he’s on TV offering a slightly more gentle announcement than Dad used to give on road trips.