These COVID-Denying Republican Governors are Just Pro-Life When it's Convenient

Texas governor Greg Abbott and Florida governor Ron DeSantis must be trying to one-up each other in the race to treat COVID-19 with the most recklessness. It’s like the crate challenge, but instead of a few dozen people around the block witnessing the disaster waiting to happen, there are millions of people who could be directly harmed by the fallout.

Today, Florida is experiencing the worst surge of the pandemic ever. There are more deaths and cases per day than at any point last year.

Cases in Texas are creeping back up to when coronavirus was at its worst last winter, and that includes an increase in COVID-19 deaths. There were no pediatric ICU beds left in North Texas as of August 13th. At least 89 Texas hospitals were out of ICU beds last week.

How did we get here?

It’s hard to ignore the absolute chicanery of the two states’ governors since this all began.

Both men seemed to don their best Trump impressions early into the pandemic, making executive decisions that downplayed the severity of COVID-19. By late March last year, weeks after COVID-19 cases were emerging in the country, Governor Greg Abbott had yet to announce a statewide stay-at-home order, which health experts agreed was key to abating the spread of COVID. When he did finally order Texans to stay home starting in April, he wrestled with semantics, refusing to use the clear terms “stay at home” or “shelter in place” when referring to his order.

Even as COVID cases in Texas set a record in June last year (which was then surpassed in July 2020), Abbott failed to issue a mask mandate. The first time he required mask-wearing was in July, and it excluded people in various types of mass gatherings, including those going to church or voting. Not to be outdone, Ron DeSantis in Florida has never issued a mask mandate.

This summer, both governors raised the stakes. DeSantis issued an executive order that, in effect, prohibited public schools from requiring students to wear masks. He then threatened to withhold some school administrators’ salaries if they defied the order. Abbott also made it illegal for Texas schools to require masks.

After all of this, both Texas and Florida are in the top 10 states with the highest COVID death rates. Florida is especially brutal— it has the third-highest death rate of any state in the U.S. Texas has the nation’s second-highest amount of COVID cases, with close to 2.7 million confirmed. The top 3 highest clusters of COVID outbreaks are all in Texas.

At this rate, their pro-life stance is a farce. While they are strict about limiting abortions and demanding how pregnant women should treat their bodies, DeSantis and Abbott assumed a sort of learned helplessness for much of the pandemic. Their leadership— while seeing millions of people in their states become infected with coronavirus and watching tens of thousands die— can be boiled down to: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

But then over the past few months, the tone went from helpless to straight up reckless. There’s practically a defiance of science, public health, and basic human decency.

With the highly contagious delta variant surging in Texas, Gregg Abbott attended an indoor fundraiser last week without a mask. Joining him were what appeared to be dozens of older attendees, who also weren’t wearing masks. Abbott was tested positive for COVID-19 the next day. He still hadn’t backed out of his mask mandate ban in schools (though the Supreme Court in Texas forced his hand by permitting temporary restraining orders that would allow schools to enforce mask-wearing).

Residents in these cities are trying to fight sense into their elected leaders, with some parents also suing DeSantis for banning masks in schools.

With all this pushback against them for their dangerous decisions, what could possibly motivate these governors to shun science and their constituents in flouting practical measures to minimize a deadly virus?

Perhaps they are merely anti-virtue signaling. Maybe they are that committed to appealing to the most rightwing in the Republican base who have vehemently protested all matters of normal things over the past year, like counting votes or allowing an incoming president to just, you know, serve in their office without a violent insurrection.

Beyond that, there are signals about these governors’ priorities in the very nature of how they talk about the pandemic. In announcing that he was lifting restrictions on social distancing and other mandates to “open” Texas this March, Gov. Abbott chose to appear before a local Chamber of Commerce.

“This must end,” he told the crowd of business leaders. “‘It is now time to open Texas 100 percent. Everybody that wants to work should have that opportunity. Every business that wants to open, should be open.”

At a press conference at a Florida steakhouse, Ron DeSantis summoned images of waitresses and cooks just itching to go back to work. A common line DeSantis has repeated to these low-wage workers is that “some may want to put you down, but we want to lift you up.”

But with all this purported lifting, DeSantis cut unemployment benefits for Florida residents two months early. And this hasn’t facilitated any outpouring of job applications. In the definition of F around and find out, a Florida survey found that 65% of the people who had rejected job offers in May said unemployment benefits were not a factor in their decision. Rather, concerns about COVID (35%) and the need to care for family (31%) took precedent. Across the country, 84% of restaurants report having fewer employees than normal.

This points to the fact that COVID-denialism from the likes of Abbott and DeSantis is less about “freedom” or reassuring the general public. Their pro-death stance is more about reassuring the business community. For free-market evangelists, they sure forgot about people’s freedom to choose themselves and their own health.

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