AUSTIN, TEXAS >> As Texas began mandating face coverings today on the orders of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, his party charged ahead with plans for a massive convention this month in Houston, magnifying the conflicting responses in the Texas GOP to a rampant resurgence of the coronavirus.
Abbott, governor of America’s biggest red state, has dodged saying whether he supports still holding an indoor three-day convention beginning July 16. The event typically draws thousands of people — making it one of America’s biggest political conventions — but comes this year at a moment when Houston is one of the nation’s biggest virus hotspot.
On Friday, Houston’s mayor urged the Texas GOP to again reconsider as the party views their convention as a test run for the Republican National Convention next month in Florida, where President Donald Trump is expected to accept the Republican nomination.
“This is a convention that Trump wants,” said Leslie Thomas, a state GOP committee member from Dallas, during a party meeting late Thursday. “Like it or not, Texas is the Republican state. We bear that. So we need to stand our ground.”
The conflict underscores the pressure Abbott has faced from within and outside his party as he tries to gain control of an alarming resurgence of the virus in Texas. Conservative activists blasted the new mask order, condemning it as heavy-handed. Abbott made new appeals to those he says are failing to grasp the severity of the crisis in Texas, which earlier this week set a record with more than 8,000 newly confirmed cases in one day.
“It just seems like people are not comprehending the magnitude of the problem,” Abbott told San Antonio television station KSAT.
The U.S. set another record on Friday with 52,300 newly reported cases, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Texas reported more than 7,500 cases, and hospitalizations set another new record. The picture was bleak around much of the country, including in Arizona and Florida, where GOP governors have also backpedaled from aggressive reopenings as cases and hospitalizations have surged.
Neither have moved to follow Abbott’s reversal on masks. Next door in Arkansas, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday signed an executive order allowing cities to enact mask ordinances, but continued to resist calls for a statewide mandate.
The mask order in Texas — which carries a $250 fine — is the most dramatic about-face Abbott has made as he retreats from what stood out as one of the swiftest reopenings in America. Mayors and county leaders in big cities where the virus has rapidly spread, including San Antonio and Austin, praised the decision but have also blamed Abbott for the resurgence, criticizing him for rebooting Texas so quickly and stripping their authority to enforce tougher restrictions.
“It’s about time,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, referring to Abbott issuing the mask order.
GOP activists in Texas, who for years have driven the state’s politics in the Texas Capitol, battered the order that was made ahead of the Fourth of July weekend. Hours after Abbott issued the mandate Thursday, and while continuing to urge people to stay home, the Texas GOP voted in an emergency meeting to keep plans to meet in Houston and not switch to a virtual gathering.
The refusal to cancel led the Texas Medical Association, the state’s largest physician organization, to revoke its sponsorship. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, said the “city will decide what steps must be taken to protect the health and safety of employees, visitors, and the general public.”
There are exceptions in Texas’ mask order for people who have a medical condition or disability, who are exercising outdoors, or who are participating in a religious service or voting. Abbott also gave mayors and county authorities the ability to ban outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people.
On June 17, Abbott told a Waco television station: “We want to make sure individual liberty is not infringed upon by government and hence government cannot require individuals to wear masks.” Two weeks later, Abbott issued his mask order Thursday.
Dr. John Zerwas, a former Republican state lawmaker who has advised Abbott throughout the pandemic, said the governor had told him he would issue the mask order a day earlier and was swayed by the worsening trajectory.
“The political implications are what the are,” Zerwas said. “But the public health implications are crystal clear. This is a decision that needed to be made.”