When Texas began lifting coronavirus restrictions, Republican Governor Greg Abbott did not wear a mask. He would not let mayors enact extra precautions during one of the United States’ swiftest efforts to reopen. He pointed out that the White House backed his plan and gave assurances there were safe ways to go out again.
Two months later, a sharp reversal is unfolding as the number of confirmed infections surges with a daily record number of 40,000 new cases across the US reported on Thursday.
The backpedalling is not just in Texas, where Abbott ordered bars to shut down again on Friday and scaled back restaurant dining and is now urgently telling people to stay home. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, also a Republican, did the same, declaring the state “on pause” as hospitals accelerate towards capacity.
As an alarming coronavirus resurgence sets records for confirmed cases and hospitalisations across the US South and West, governors are retreating to measures they once resisted and striking a more urgent tone.
“I think they’re going to have to,” said Dr Mark McClellan, former head of the Food and Drug Administration. “It doesn’t take most people in a community getting sick to overwhelm healthcare systems.”
In Florida, which had reported more than 5,000 new cases in each of the past two days, Governor Ron DeSantis has resisted calls to mandate masks, leaving that decision to local leaders. The Republican contends that areas not as severely affected should not have to bear the same burdens.
On Friday, the state banned alcohol consumption at its bars after its daily confirmed coronavirus cases neared 9,000, a new record that is almost double the previous mark set just two days ago.
Effective immediately, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation is suspending on premises consumption of alcohol at bars statewide.
— Florida DBPR (@FloridaDBPR) June 26, 2020
The Florida agency that governs bars announced the ban on Twitter just minutes after the Department of Health reported 8,942 new confirmed cases, topping the previous record of 5,500 set on Wednesday.
Critics bristle that the actions are too little, or worse, possibly too late as patients fill up intensive-care beds and the US closes in on hitting all-time highs for daily confirmed cases.
And governors are not entirely bending in their resolve: Abbott has said shutting down the Texas economy again is the last resort.
The escalating crisis is testing governors – many of them Republicans who aggressively reopened before most of the US – as pressure mounts from their biggest cities, health experts and even friendly business groups.
Any move backwards could land them at odds with President Donald Trump, who has sought to move on from the virus and return to the campaign stage, all while refusing to wear a mask in public.
A June survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research says many Americans never fully embraced the reopening effort now under way in many states. A majority of Americans still have concerns about contracting the virus that causes COVID-19, and significant shares still support the kinds of public health restrictions that states have rolled back.
The most widespread about-face in GOP states is a sudden openness to letting local authorities mandate masks – a concession that cities including Phoenix and Little Rock, Arkansas, quickly put into action but is increasingly criticised as insufficient as the outbreaks rage.
Florida officials have attributed much of the state’s new outbreak to young adults flocking to bars after they reopened in most of the state about a month ago, with many of them ignoring social distancing restrictions aimed at lowering the virus’s spread.
Add to that the political optics of reimposing restrictions less than two months before Republicans descend on the state in late August to renominate Trump. The Republican National Committee awarded Jacksonville, Florida the convention. Trump got in a tiff with North Carolina’s Democratic governor over social distancing restrictions that threatened to dampen his celebration.
The number of confirmed cases in Duval County, which is home to Jacksonville, has shot up along with statewide numbers.
“It’s not political. You’re in a situation where the whole reason the mitigation was done was to flatten the curve so the hospitals weren’t overwhelmed,” DeSantis said last weekend. “We didn’t 100 percent know what was going to happen.”
US Representative Donna Shalala of Florida, a former secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration, called on DeSantis to make a course correction.
“He followed the president’s leadership, and people have died because of it,” she said. “He can pivot and take very strong steps.”
In Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson has urged people to cover their faces and even begins his daily briefings by showing off his mask. But the Republican governor has resisted calls to require them, arguing that it would be difficult to enforce in a rural state.
Hutchinson also says he is concerned such a mandate could lead to a backlash, with people refusing to wear masks. Some cities have acted on their own, and he says he will not get in their way.
“How do you encourage people to wear a mask?” Hutchinson said this week. “I think we’re taking it by providing the guidelines.”
In Arizona, Ducey resisted pressure to close restaurants as the virus first spread in March, saying the state was not seeing explosive growth like New York and did not need to act so aggressively. The Democratic mayors of Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and elsewhere imposed their own restrictions.
The governor responded with an executive order barring dining in restaurants in counties with known coronavirus infections. The order also prohibited cities from imposing restrictions on a list of businesses, including golf courses.
Last week, Ducey changed his mind on local restrictions. Under extreme pressure to act as COVID-19 cases soar, Ducey gave local leaders the power to require masks, while avoiding making it a statewide mandate.
The numbers “continue to go in the wrong direction”, Ducey said on Thursday.