To preserve the social good during moments of crisis, central decision-makers at the national level are entrusted with emergency state powers, which are used to help reduce the costs of collective action decision making and overcome the prolonged ills of collective bads, like pandemics and other natural disasters. Yet a major assumption of crisis policies and policymaking, as well as the crisis institutions activated during such liminal times, is that the policy preferences of periphery state actors, citizens, and indigenous groups are aligned with those of national governments and central elites. Literature on political survival, state capture, and crises tend to agree that incentives to cooperate at a moment of crisis exceed the divergent interests of elites to independently exploit institutional flaws and maximize odds of political survival. As a result of observed elite coordination toward influencing the COVID-19 crisis policy process, this article offers archival, interview, statistical and cartographic analyses, to explain how elite capture of environmental institutions occurred during Indonesia’s crisis response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It uses within-case process tracing and fuzzy-set case comparative methods and find, primarily, that state capture by elites resulted in 34 cases of institutional transformation within provinces across Indonesia, where local elites neither contested illegitimate policymaking nor adapted local institutions to the adverse effects of crisis laws driven by central government elites. Furthermore, it finds that the local community’s capacity for collective action, elite control over policy development and elite capture of environmental costs/benefits were causally connected to provincial histories of policy development following episodes of past crisis. In cases where local institutions were transformed by central elites, environmental benefits to the poor were terminated, local elites were stripped of their agenda setting and agenda shaping power (with said power recentralized within the bureaucracies of Jakarta), and resource rights were shifted from the poor to extractive corporations and foreign investment. In strict opposition to past theories of elite capture, this work provides novel evidence of local non-elites and local elites, who typically participate in democratic self-governance, failing to demonstrate an ability to redress central elite capture when it occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.