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Texas Governor Faces Lawsuit, Under Fire Over Contact Tracing Deal, Mask Order

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Texas, five conservative members of the state legislature are suing the governor, who's also a Republican. They accuse Gov. Greg Abbott of abusing his emergency powers during the pandemic. The lawsuit reflects a larger ideological power struggle between the right wing of the Texas GOP and Gov. Abbott. As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, the governor's decision to hold power close to his vest is making him unpopular with both Democrats and Republicans.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: When the pandemic first hit Texas this spring, Gov. Greg Abbott earned pretty high marks as much as the state shut down, and he promised that data and medical science would guide its reopening. But as the country's economy fell off a cliff and President Trump began to forcefully agitate for the states to reopen, Abbott did on the 1 of May - measuredly at first, but soon Texas was back in business. When Democratic leaders wanted to continue to at least mandate masks, Abbott said no. And he vowed to sue any mayor or county executive who tried it.

LINA HIDALGO: So initially, I had the authority to issue a stay-home order, a restaurant order, a face-covering order. When the governor issued his reopening order, it included a provision removing that authority.

GOODWYN: Judge Lina Hidalgo is the Harris County chief executive who helps govern nearly 5 million people, including the city of Houston. Hidalgo says Abbott's refusal to allow local leaders to mandate any restrictions changed the public's perception of the virus's threat.

HIDALGO: As the governor was saying, OK, well, now you can go to the restaurants. And now you can go to the bars. And now you can go to the water park and the mall and indoor events. You know, my message continued to be, guys, please stay home. You know, minimize contact. But it's hard, right?

GOODWYN: The governor also refused to recall the Republican-dominated legislature into session. It was Abbott's show and no one else. For the first couple of weeks, Texas seemed OK. But after Memorial Day, that changed. Hospitals in Texas were suddenly deluged. COVID patients in the Rio Grande Valley had to be flown 800 miles to the Texas panhandle because there were no available hospital beds in between. Then, at the end of June, Vice President Mike Pence held a Celebrate Freedom rally at a Dallas megachurch with the choir singing unmasked before a congregation of 2,200, many of whom were also unmasked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mr. Vice President, welcome to First Baptist Dallas. Appreciate you so much. God bless you.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: It is good to be back in church.

(CHEERING)

GOODWYN: After church, Pence and Greg Abbott held a Celebrate Freedom press conference at a Dallas hospital where they congratulated one another. Here's the governor.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PENCE: Sometimes, it's me calling him, sometimes, late at night or on a weekend. Other times, it will be him calling me, most recently on Father's Day.

GOODWYN: With Texas staring into the coronavirus abyss, the celebration at First Baptist generated a cacophony of condemnation, which may have had an effect. Just before Independence Day, and to the shock of his fellow Republicans, Abbott reversed himself and reissued a statewide mask mandate, and that's torn it for many Texas conservatives.

MICHAEL BERRY: You're seeing definitely his base turning against him. And I don't approve of what he's done. I call him Gov. Grab-It (ph) because I think he's in the middle of a power grab.

GOODWYN: Michael Berry is a conservative talk show host at KTRH in Houston and at 20 other radio stations. He says, since Abbott's mask mandate, eight Texas Republican county organizations have voted to censure the governor.

BERRY: For many people, the idea that you're going to dictate that they're going to put something on their face is anathema to their very existence. And people feel very passionately about it.

GOODWYN: Gov. Abbott's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed his approval rating falling precipitously to 48%, yet 80% approve of his mask order. Dr. John Zerwas was on the governor's pandemic strike team.

JOHN ZERWAS: He's going to be recognized for having done the right thing, despite what political pressures might be pushed upon him, either from the right or the left. This is not going to be a very pretty several weeks. It hasn't been a very pretty several weeks and months. But it is going to come to an end.

GOODWYN: Texas remains a coronavirus hotspot. Almost 20% of all of the deaths in Texas from COVID-19 were reported just in the past week.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.