Forget Fatigue – Political Leadership is Still Fueling COVID-19 in Texas

Elected officials are now being confronted daily with overwhelming evidence of two critical conditions in the state: COVID infections are spreading rapidly, and a growing (though concentrated) number of Texans are engaging in behavior that disregards public health. At the same time, “COVID fatigue” has entered the vernacular, both a dangerous and misguided justification for bad behaviors, and a rationale for scaled-down responses, both public and private, at a time when the pandemic is raging. These trends and the social and political dynamics driving them inevitably point us back to a core problem in containing the pandemic from its outset: the guidance being provided by elected political leaders and their so-called “thought leader” allies. 

One might be tempted to say “lack of guidance” when considering the relative silence of President Donald Trump on COVID-19 as the pandemic has worsened throughout the country, a silence echoed by other Republican elected officials at the national and state levels either following his lead whole heartedly, or too cowed by Trump’s continuing hold on their voters to dissent. But these political leaders’ silence is guidance to those already inclined to discount both the seriousness of the pandemic and any notion of shared responsibility for public health. 

There are ample signs that a growing number of Texans are not just tired of accommodating the pandemic and cheating around the edges; they have stopped taking it seriously and begun to care less about others in their community, writ small and large, for whom the pandemic may pose a bigger threat than it poses to themselves. Elected officials are in positions to use their public profile to remind people of their shared obligation to others and to engage them in the necessarily shared effort to protect public health. They must also do so consistently, unlike the recent examples of Democratic officials caught ignoring their own public guidance.

Public opinion polling in Texas foretold the now seemingly inevitable resurgence of the pandemic in the fall, the rush to the airports and highways during the extended Thanksgiving week, and the looming threat of the Christmas holidays. Despite the minimization of the growing surge by state leaders, including Governor Abbott, the COVID resurgence was already hitting Texas hard in the period leading into Thanksgiving. The changes in Texans’ reported perceptions of what it was safe to do, and how they were behaving, presaged the increase in cases that was already rising steeply by late October and early November, as state data shows. Given the increasing prevalence of relaxed attitudes toward the virus and its by now well-established threat, it should be no surprise that containment efforts are failing, and that the holidays are providing the setting for what NIH Director called a “surge within a surge.” 

Source: Texas Department of State Health Services,, accessed 12/7/20

By early October, Texans were already reporting increases in more social behavior when, according to University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling, the share of Texas voters who said that they were staying away from large groups declined to 83% from 88% back in June, while the share willing to eat at a restaurant increased from 49% to 56%, and (in an advance sign of holiday shopping to come) the share willing to go to a shopping mall increased to 49% from 36%.

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Living normally, coming and going as usual19%
Still leaving my residence, but being careful when I do41%
Only leaving my residence when I absolutely have to37%
Not leaving home3%

 More troubling than any specific action, Texans reported that they had become generally less restrictive in their daily habits, with 27% reporting living normally, coming and going from their homes as usual, despite being urged to stay home, compared to 19% who said the same in June (a time in which cases were surging to a lesser extent than they currently are).

Percent of Texans Either Extremely or Very Worried About Coronavirus Community Spread
(University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polling)
  April 2020 June 2020 October 2020
Overall 54% 47% 40%
Democrats 76% 74% 69%
Republicans 36% 23% 19%

The shifts in attitudes between June and October also pointed toward those airport lines and crowded interstates once the Thanksgiving break arrived. The share of Texans who were willing to fly on an airplane increased to 39% in October compared to 27% in June, as did those willing to stay in a hotel (62% vs. 50%). These data point to the urgency of a shift away from the mixed messages in the run-up to Thanksgiving and toward more uniform and urgent public messages from public officials now that the December holidays are upon us.

Changes in Select COVID Related Behaviors 
(University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polling)

  June 2020 October 2020 Difference
Percent staying away from large groups 88% 83% 5
Percent saying it's safe to fly on an airplane 27% 39% 12
Percent saying it's safe to stay in a hotel 50% 62% 12
Percent saying it's safe to eat at a restaurant 49% 56% 7
Percent saying it's safe to go to a shopping mall 36% 49% 13

At first blush, this all seems to fit within the understandable rubric of the meme that, tellingly, preceded the surge-within-a-surge we’re living through in this moment — so-called “COVID fatigue,” in which people simply tire of all things COVID-19, from hearing about it, to worrying about it, to accommodating the recommended public health measures (regardless of the variance in state-by-state virus restrictions and protocols). The idea is commonsensical enough, and speaks to a temptation that everyone has probably experienced at some point, even the most diligently observant, over the months-long pandemic. 

While the actual level and the burdens created by of Texas’ restrictions is certainly open for debate (depending on the particular point in time during the pandemic  under discussion, the accompanying COVID metrics and restrictions in place, and individual circumstances and interpretations), Texas is not considered a state that has been too heavy handed in its restrictions in any comparative sense — even if there have been internal charges to the contrary. Signs of weariness with the restrictions currently in place along with perceptions of their negative effects are heavily concentrated among Republicans (and more so white, male Republicans).

The problem with blaming “everyone’s” behavior on “fatigue” is twofold. First, not everyone is cheating or otherwise not complying with public health recommendations – and there are group differences between those who are following public health recommendations and those who are not (a point that we’ll come back to below). Second, and equally important, people are more likely to cheat when they think that others are cheating. In short, if someone thinks that others are flouting the rules, and even identify with the reasons, there’s little incentive to follow those rules, or even best practices, oneself. As the psychologist Dan Ariely put it:

“If you think about it, there is something really asymmetrical about observing good behavior and observing bad behavior. Bad behavior, when you see it, is incredibly salient. You see people behaving a certain way, and then there is a chance that you would find that this is actually acceptable.”

Evidence of cheating is taken as a signal that the rules aren't important or necessary in the first place. Not everyone will respond to this signal by cheating. But the daily message that COVID fatigue is a real thing provides justification for the actions of a largely concentrated set of Texans (and likely Americans), and multiplies the dangers at a time when we can least afford it. That fatigue is likewise being used either as a justification for a lack of government action or enforcement by elected officials, or as a rationale for the lack of action among elected officials on the part of the media. Recent high profile cases of Democratic officials like the governor of California and the mayor of Austin flouting their own regulations – easily interpreted as evidence of “fatigue” as well as of hypocrisy – only reinforce the dynamic.

The survey data that we collected in October didn’t ask Texans to tell us how they feel about the restrictions they face, but did ask about their behaviors as described above. And the stated behaviors of those most likely to spread the virus through their insistence on continuing their lives unaltered (i.e. as if the virus doesn’t exist) doesn't indicate that they’re seriously "fatigued" by the limitations. Rather, COVID fatigue becomes a term for evading hard public discussion of two distinct if overlapping sets of attitudes and behaviors: those who recognize the public health threat of the virus but behave unsafely anyway, and those who deny the evidence of its seriousness or it’s very existence. 

The differences in how social groups view various aspects of the public health crisis point to something more complicated than a common, shared experience of isolation and relative deprivation. While there is little or no evidence to support the argument that any social group denies the reality of the public health threat, there is ample evidence showing that the tendency to minimize or deny the threat has grown faster among some groups than others, and now appears among a larger share within those groups. If outright denial seems too strong an implication, it is nonetheless fair to impute the presence of a level of skepticism at odds with the spread, persistence, and measurable impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas.

As the share of Texans who view the coronavirus as “a significant crisis” has declined from a high of 66% in April, to 57% in June, to 53% in October (even as case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths keep rising), the concentration of lowered concerns is dominated by Texas Republicans, among whom only 24% rate the pandemic that killed at least 2,733 Americans on December 2 alone, a significant crisis — a decline from 29% in June, and from 48% who said the same in April. For comparison, among Democrats, the share saying the same of the coronavirus declined from 91% in April to 87% in October (which is not a statistically significant difference, meaning that there is no evidence of any decline among Democrats), making the boneheaded decisions by some Democratic elected officials recently to flout their own recommendations, even more damaging to communicating a public health message than they seem at first blush. They threaten to induce backsliding among a group that has heretofore not been a problem, while providing fresh evidence for both those who view the pandemic as a serious but overblown threat, and/or those on the fringe who view the whole of the pandemic as a hoax.

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A significant crisis87%45%24%
A serious problem but not a crisis8%31%47%
A minor problem2%14%18%
Not a problem at all1%7%9%
Don't know/No opinion1%3%1%

As we noted above, if we look at these racial differences in reported behavior, there is not evidence that a predominant share of white Texans are foregoing careful behavior or blithe to health risks in social behavior. But there are striking differences between racial groups and political groups. The decrease in concern over time here, as among both the overall population and various other groups described above, is non-trivial given the overwhelming evidence that the pandemic is worsening both in Texas and nationally. 

There are notable racial differences in these attitudes towards the pandemic. The share of White Texans who say the pandemic is a significant crisis declined from 64% in April to 44% in October, while among African Americans, the share declined from 81% to 75%; among Hispanics, ratings of the virus remained unchanged, with 65% seeing it as a significant crisis in April and October. This gap between Whites and people of color should come as no surprise as the worst effects of the pandemic have been borne by the Hispanic and African American communities, as the chart below illustrates.

Source: Texas Department of State Health Services,, accessed 12/7/20

Combining these two points shows a disquieting problem: Among White Republicans, only 22% view the pandemic as a significant crisis, compared to 68% of everyone else; 45% report living normally, compared to 17% of everyone else; 16% are either “extremely” (6%) or “very concerned” (10%) about the spread of the coronavirus in their community, compared to 54% of everyone else.

Thus we find ourselves in a rare instance in politics in which there is very little gray area. Elected executives at the national and state level remain in the best positions to provide positive guidance, and to model behaviors, that can shore up the redoubling of public efforts to contain the pandemic while vaccines are manufactured and distributed. The data that has accumulated over the length of the pandemic makes clear that Republican executive branch leaders like the president and the governor bear heavier responsibilities – it is their partisans who both most need to receive a different message and most need to hear that message coming from their partisan leaders. 

One might be appalled by Donald Trump’s indifference to public health while he’s managing his transition, but by now his undisguised narcissism is, to use a figure of speech he would understand, par for the course – appalling but not surprising.

But Governor Abbott’s lapse into being largely silent in public on the pandemic is harder to take for granted. His shifts in policy and rhetoric across the span of the pandemic suggest that he understands the seriousness of the threat to public health, but that he takes the politics surrounding the situation more seriously. The criticism that Abbott had been attentive to the most extreme wing of his party out a mixture of political defensiveness and deference to the president and his base seems more and more justified as Abbott continues to be minimally reactive in providing unambiguous public health signals to all Texans, including and especially his partisans. 

The good news about the coming vaccines provided the state leadership with talking points about the who, when, and how of vaccine distribution, and in the short run, at least, allows them to avoid discussion of the steep climb in the spread of the virus, and the immediate measures that we know will slow that spread. But in the meantime, they continue to leave the lion’s share of enforcement to locally elected leaders, while seemingly making efforts to tie their hands at the same time — an abdication that will only grow more costly as cases continue to increase along with the number of those who die while we wait for the vaccine to be manufactured and distributed. This seems a high price for the state to pay just so that the governor and his allies can avoid the blowback (from voters and rivals) for attempting to persuade or compel a group of their voters who have been willfully misinformed about the public health crisis. As nearly all measures indicate a continuing steep rise in the spread of the virus in the state, the apparent strategy of waiting it out reflects a brutal political calculation that the leadership can absorb the political costs of not taking a higher profile that would reduce suffering and deaths.

The continuing discussion of how the Texas political class is thinking about the threat of the virus when it involves their daily lives only exacerbates the sense that political calculations are outweighing public health concerns in the odds making of GOP decision makers. The glimpse at the emerging plans in the Texas House provided by House Administration Chair Charlie Geren last week, however unfixed the final plans, signaled one thing clearly: the GOP leadership in the legislature clearly knows that COVID-19 is a threat to the process because it is a threat to their physical health. In response, the members and the leadership are discussing significant reductions in access to the Capitol and the House chamber, mandatory testing for members and staff, changes to the voting rules involving some form of remote voting using laptops, improvements to the HVAC, the deployment of disinfecting robots, and even the public vaccination of the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker. The question remains whether their most prominent leaders will show the same initiative, creativity, care, and concern that they are currently taking to protect themselves when it comes to protecting the rest of Texas in the dark months between now and the time that everyone else gets access to a vaccine — sometime after the legislative session, but before the 2022 Elections.