Texas and California reopen: different pace, similar pressure

Why We Wrote This

Texas and California offer two different visions of how to handle the coronavirus lockdowns and end them. Here’s an up-close look at the challenges – and the surprising similarities.

David J. Phillip/AP
Waiter Marcos Huerta (right) serves a grill of fajitas at El Tiempo Cantina in Houston on May 1, 2020. The restaurant reopened its dining room for table service, with limited capacity. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has eased coronavirus-related restrictions on many businesses.

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The nation’s two most populous states are culturally and economically a world apart. Yet for California’s Democratic governor and the Republican at the helm in Texas, what may be most interesting for now are some leadership similarities.

Both are pursuing a reopening of their economies amid a pandemic, though California’s opening will be slower. Both are balancing their own authority with some local autonomy. And both say data and science are driving their decisions, even at a time when a lot remains unknown about how to track and contain the COVID-19 disease.

In Texas, the phased reopening is being guided by science and data, the governor says, albeit with caveats that in a large and diverse state a one-size-fits-all approach may be counterproductive. In particular he points to a decline in the “test-positivity rate,” or the percentage of tests that have been returned positive, and hospital systems that aren’t overwhelmed with patients.

In California, as in Texas, public pressure is part of the political equation. “My civil liberties are to be able to come to our beach – the beach I pay taxes for,” says educator Penny Fraumeni in Newport Beach.

At what point does the nonessential become essential again? And what is essential, anyway?

Educated minds may disagree, especially if you’re leading a state during a pandemic. Just ask Gavin Newsom and Greg Abbott.

The governors of California and Texas, respectively, don’t agree on much – including how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. On May 1, for example, as the Texas governor was allowing some businesses to reopen, the California governor closed beaches in Orange County.

Still, in recent weeks they have found themselves following similar paths as they reopen in stages and lead their states into the uncertainty of a post-lockdown, pre-vaccine world.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Amid conflicting pressures from citizens, both governors are now pursuing a degree of reopening. Both find themselves balancing their own authority with some local autonomy. And both say data and science are driving their decisions, even at a time when a lot remains unknown about how to track and contain the COVID-19 disease.

Mr. Abbott, a Republican, has prioritized a quick reopening of businesses while Mr. Newsom, a Democrat, is taking a more cautious approach. California has seen more coronavirus deaths than Texas and many other states.

The reopening efforts could showcase the possibilities of regional flexibility within states, but also remain fraught with challenges.

“I’m very worried about the states,” says G. William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist think tank in Washington, which recommends that the U.S. triple its coronavirus testing capacity in the next several weeks. “Most states have opened up too broadly, too quickly. But digging down below the aggregate state level, and looking at counties and localities, obviously you get a different picture.”

A red-state governor reopens

The pressures facing governors around the nation are evident in Shelley Luther’s salon in Dallas.

Since she reopened her salon on April 24, in defiance of state and local orders, Ms. Luther has become a cause célèbre for people around the country demanding the easing of virus-related restrictions. Business has been busier during the pandemic than before it, she says.

“People are proud of what we’ve been doing ... and want to come and support us,” she added in a May 2 interview.

“The government was not helping us the way they said they would,” she says, citing the worries local businesses face about paying their mortgages and seeking emergency loans. 

On May 5, a civil court judge in Dallas sentenced her to a week in jail and a fine of at least $3,500 for defying state and county orders. Ms. Luther, who says she doesn’t know anyone who has contracted COVID-19, told Judge Eric Moyé that “feeding my kids is not selfish.”

“The rule of law governs us,” the judge said. “People cannot take it upon themselves to determine what they will and will not do.”

But the pandemic has decimated the Texas economy. And while 66% of Texas voters consider the coronavirus a serious crisis, 72% are “extremely” or “very” concerned about the national economy, according to a Texas Tribune/University of Texas at Austin poll.

This has seen Governor Abbott seize command of when and how the state returns to work, says Joshua Blank, research director at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Now the purpose is to limit the public health consequences to an acceptable level in service of restarting the economy,” he adds. “That acceptable level is going to be determined solely by the governor going forward, which I’ll say is a pretty big gamble on his part.”

Eric Gay/AP
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott holds the Governor's Report to Reopen Texas book during a news conference where he announced he would relax some restrictions imposed on businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on April 27, 2020, in Austin, Texas.

 

Since May 1 malls, museums, restaurants, and movie theaters have been allowed to reopen at 25% of their total capacity. Hair salons are being allowed to open on May 8, and gyms on May 18. This is a slight acceleration from Governor Abbott’s original plan of “Phase 2” starting “as early as May 18,” but it’s combined with social-distancing guidelines (though they can’t be enforced with penalties), scaling to 30,000 tests per day, and mobilizing a team of 4,000 “contact tracers” by May 11.

The phased reopening is being guided by science and data, the governor says, albeit with caveats that in a large and diverse state a one-size-fits-all approach may be counterproductive. Counties with fewer than five active cases – 108 of the state’s 254 counties right now – can open businesses to 50% their total capacity, for example. The governor has also issued special guidance for nursing homes and Texans over 65, who make up 70% of fatalities in the state.

In particular he points to a decline in the “test-positivity rate,” or the percentage of tests that have been returned positive, and that hospital systems aren’t overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

In that context, some have criticized his plan as too modest.

“If you look at the data, in Texas and most states it’s safe to reopen maybe even more aggressively than we have,” says Kevin Roberts, a part-time member of the governor’s advisory group on reopening the state and executive director of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“We’ve been told to watch data, flatten the curve. Well what have we been doing? Watching data, flattening curve. Now we’re here, the goalposts have moved,” he adds, referencing critics of the governor’s plan – notably local Democratic leaders.

The critics, however, say they’re using the same goal posts as health officials advising the governor and President Donald Trump.

White House guidelines for reopening recommend a two-week decline in documented cases before states start reopening. A paper co-authored by Dr. Mark McClellan, one of Governor Abbott’s advisers and a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, also recommends waiting for a two-week decline, as well as waiting until a state can test everyone with COVID-19 symptoms.

Over the weekend, the state added more than 2,000 cases – its highest increase since the outbreak began. To date, 884 Texans have died.

Texas is near the bottom when it comes to per capita testing in the country. But if the state expands testing and contact tracing as it plans to, those are good indicators to track as businesses reopen, says Luis Ostrosky, an infectious disease specialist at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston. So are the social distancing guidelines – set out in the governor’s plan.

“If we follow these rules carefully we’re going to be successful, and if we don’t there’s a mechanism to scale back, as painful as it may be,” says Dr. Ostrosky.

Indeed, Governor Abbott has given himself the ability to accelerate or reverse on easing restrictions. His order also supersedes any local orders that may conflict with it.

David J. Phillip/AP
Nyha Carter (left) helps Brianna Fregia inside a Journeys shoe store in The Woodlands, Texas, on May 5, 2020. The Woodlands Mall reopened Tuesday with increased health and safety measures in place, as the state's governor eased coronavirus-related restrictions on the economy.

 

In Bexar County, which includes most of San Antonio, for example, face coverings are still “required” even though the governor’s order means such local ordinances can’t be enforced.

In Dallas County, home to Ms. Luther’s salon, County Judge Clay Jenkins worries Governor Abbott is moving too fast on reopening.  

“We have not seen the death and disease that [other major] urban areas have seen, but it doesn’t mean we couldn’t still have that,” he says. 

On the ground, the first week of Texas’s reopening has been fairly muted. Some restaurants haven’t reopened to dine-in customers, in part because of the time it would take to set up. Many movie theaters and museums have stayed closed – including the Governor’s mansion in Austin – and shoppers seem to be venturing out in trickles instead of droves.

“It’s going to take a while to build that confidence up. People are cautious with their spending, they don’t know what the future holds,” says Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. “There’s going to be a reluctance to move forward, but we just have to deal with it.”

A blue-state leader focused on health data

In Newport Beach, California, you couldn’t miss the sign: “Beach area temporarily closed.” All caps. Red letters. It was posted on a sandwich board just steps from Penny Fraumeni’s front door on the corner of 35th Street and paradise.

Nor could you miss the police helicopters, which twice passed over the handful of scattered sunbathers on Newport Beach last Saturday, asking people to vacate the area.

Ms. Fraumeni, visiting her family’s oceanside cottage from her home in Hacienda Heights, did not move from her isolated beach chair. Nor did she cease reading “The 13-Minute Murder” by James Patterson.

“My civil liberties are to be able to come to our beach – the beach I pay taxes for,” says the educator in sunglasses. In her view, Governor Newsom violated those rights when he closed this and all beaches in Orange County on May 1, citing crowds at a time when Californians need to practice social distancing. For seven weeks, Ms. Fraumeni has obeyed the governor’s statewide lockdown – the first in the nation. But when he overruled the city council’s vote last week to keep the beach open, that was “over the top,” she believes.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
California Gov. Gavin Newsom gestures during a news conference at the Governor's Office of Emergency Services in Rancho Cordova, California, on April 14, 2020. Mr. Newsom is allowing a degree of local autonomy in reopening, but this week criticized a few counties that have defied his baseline conditions.

The governor appears to have heard that message – to a degree.

On Monday, he announced that the Golden State would take the first steps to reopen California’s economy, beginning Friday with curb-side pickup for “lower risk” retailers like bookstores, clothing stores, and florists (it’s almost Mother’s Day, after all). Perhaps more notable, he’s loosening the reins on local communities, allowing them to open further if they meet certain virus-containment criteria. Counties less affected by the virus, including four with no confirmed cases, have been clamoring for local autonomy, and a few have gone ahead with reopening. They’re backed by swarms of vociferous protesters.

But while the governor has publicly empathized with the protesters, he maintains that it is science and data – not politics and pushback – that are allowing him to start to gradually reopen the state. That, and the vigilance of Californians staying home and practicing social distancing.

“He is a data-driven guy,” says Zev Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles politician now with the University of California in Los Angeles. “In this instance, the data-driven approach is perfect for the crisis we have.”

When mayor of San Francisco, Mr. Newsom joined the management trend in cities like Baltimore and New York, measuring city services and budgets through a data system known as “SFStat.” 

He repeatedly comes back to key metrics guiding a gradual reopening of this vast and varied “nation-state,” as he often calls it. On Monday, he pointed to a “report card” that showed a two-week stabilization in hospitalizations and a slight decline in COVID-19-related stays in intensive care units. The state is “on schedule” with personal protective equipment, health care surge capacity, and testing and contact tracing capability, according to the report card.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Erin Crane holds her terrier-mix, Ridley, in front of her home in Newport Beach, California, on May 2, 2020. "I'm a rule follower. We do what we need to do for the common good," she says of the governor's recent order to close the beaches in her county.

 

The number of coronavirus-related deaths in California has declined for the first time, week over week. With more than 2,400 such deaths reported so far, California is in far better shape than New York (more than 24,000). 

But there’s “a lot we still don’t know” about the data and science of the virus, says Emily Blodget, an expert on infectious diseases at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Political leaders may look for a decline in cases for their guide, but more testing is bound to reveal more cases, says Dr. Blodget. The most reliable guides for decision-making are hospitalizations and ICU stays, she says.

Californians broadly back the governor’s cautious, data-based approach, with 70% of voters approving his job performance, according to one poll released on May 1. Similarly, 70% say they are more concerned that the shelter-in-place orders will end too soon, causing the virus to spread more, than are worried the orders will go on for too long, causing greater economic damage. More than 4 million people in California have filed for unemployment benefits – with more coming.

“I’m a rule follower. We do what we need to do for the common good,” says Erin Crane, holding her terrier-mix Ridley in front of her home in Newport Beach. The mother of two resides just paces away from a stunning cliff view of the ocean. She wears a mask on her walks, though many residents don’t.

The Southern California heat wave that sent people seeking ocean sun and fun two weekends ago – and which prompted the governor’s crackdown – caused chaos on her street of closely packed homes, she says. The beach itself was less of an issue, but with the beach parking lot closed, cars and maskless pedestrians crammed the streets and sidewalks. She’s glad the governor closed the beach. “It’s unfortunate, but we need to stay healthy.”

In some cases, communities that want more freedom to open up are throwing their own data back at the governor. Orange County has experienced 61 COVID-19 deaths so far – out of a population of 3.2 million. The local hospital has a 475-bed capacity, with never more than 25 people in beds at any time, maintains Mayor Will O’Neill. There is no ventilator shortage.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Newport Beach Council member Joy Brenner points to Corona Del Mar beach in California on May 2, 2020. California Gov. Gavin Newsom had closed the beach the day before. Although she supported closure for safety reasons, she believes locals should have a say in such decisions.

 

“I know this governor has talked quite a bit about ... putting data over politics. So if he needs more data, we’ll be happy to provide more data,” said the mayor, after a special council session Saturday. 

Now the state and oceanside communities are working together, and this week reached agreements to open up several major beaches, including Newport Beach. The agreements allow activities such as walking, surfing, and jogging, but no passive games or sunbathing.

Orange County was once a GOP bastion, and many people here feel like the Democratic governor is sticking it to them. Some local politicians are playing up the division through legal action. Regrettably, “it’s now getting really political,” says Newport Beach council member Joy Brenner. Still, she agrees that localities should have more say in reopening. “I don’t think one-size-fits-all is the answer.” 

That seems to be where Governor Newsom is headed – with limits. This week he criticized a few counties that have defied his baseline conditions and are allowing higher-risk businesses like malls, gyms, and full-service restaurants to open. “They’re making a big mistake. They’re putting their public at risk. They’re putting our progress at risk.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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