Leading the state through a pandemic and last month’s devastating winter storms, Gov. Greg Abbott hasn’t made many friends. And the decision to lift the statewide mask mandate starting Wednesday could cost him a few more.
Texas liberals condemned the governor's move, saying it could end countless lives. While many conservatives are relieved to hear they can now go mask-free, others have chided Abbott for issuing the mandate in the first place.
Abbott’s new executive order, which also allows businesses to operate at 100% capacity, comes at a time when the state is struggling to keep up with vaccine distribution. While health departments scramble to get residents inoculated, Texas ranks 48th in terms of vaccine rollout, according to Newsweek.
Politics aside, Texas has not met the criteria for safe reopening because it hasn’t seen a decline in cases for two weeks, said Dr. Erin Carlson, an associate clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington. Even though it’s optional to don a face covering, the evidence supporting mask-wearing hasn’t changed.
“The disease has not abated,” Carlson said. “The disease is not done with us just because we’re done with it.”
Some believe the timing of Abbott’s announcement is suspect. Conservatives speculate he may have tried to regain support following his dismal performance during last weekend’s presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Liberals, though, say Abbott wants to distract from his failure to manage the winter storm disaster.
Abbott can evade blame by putting the onus on local governments to enforce their own public health regulations, said Zack Malitz, treasurer of Boot Texas Republicans PAC. Texas is in a “doom-loop” of Abbott making cities and counties responsible, but as soon as local officials take action, he revokes their authority.
Even though Abbott wasn’t enforcing the mask mandate before, lifting it now sends constituents the message they can flout all COVID-19 guidelines, Malitz said.
Health experts warn that returning to full operations could have disastrous consequences for the state. The governor is putting political optics over people’s lives, Malitz said.
“Masks and business restrictions are unfortunately a culture-war issue,” Malitz said. “And a large segment of [Abbott’s] base probably will be really excited about this policy, whereas no one in Texas is in favor of blackouts and not having water.
“This is better politics than 'the lights are out and you’re cold,'” he continued.
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden slammed the Texas governor, calling the move to ease restrictions “Neanderthal thinking,” according to The New York Times. The Democrat also said it’s a “big mistake” for people to go mask-free.
Still, many Texans were frustrated with the mandate; for some, coronavirus restrictions have taken an emotional toll, said Jason Vaughn, policy director for the Texas Young Republicans. Many have missed friends and family while being forced into lockdown. Plus, easing business restrictions will help boost the economy.
Continuing the mask mandate would have been a terrible decision, Vaughn said. If Abbott didn’t act, it would have ultimately led to a revolt.
Abbott is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t, Vaughn said.
“He’s trying to do his best to protect Texans both physically and their liberty, and that is a tough line to go with,” Vaughn said.
Many struggling business owners celebrated Abbott following his decision to allow them to operate at full capacity. Others have been more critical: Setting their own pro-mask policies could put them on the chopping block.
Abbott has effectively forced business owners into the role of “pandemic police,” said Chris Polone, owner of Fort Worth’s The Rail Club Live. Over the past few months, hundreds of bars across the state have received citations for mask-less patrons.
What Abbott says on TV differs from his executive order, Polone said. Even though the governor promised a full reopening, bars may have to scale back if county officials employ “mitigation strategies” because of high hospitalization rates.
The constant threat of cutbacks is tough on venue owners, some of whom may spend thousands booking bands or other entertainment under the assumption of 100% capacity, Polone said. If they’re made to scale back once more, then owners could lose money.
Even though many Texans celebrated the announcement, Polone said they shouldn’t let the governor off the hook.
“Let’s not forget that Greg Abbott ruined thousands of businesses over the last year,” he said. “And let’s not call him a hero because he abided by the Texas Constitution and allowed freedom of choice again.”
Even though there’s no longer a mandate, Carlson said people should remember that masks decrease the chance of transmission by more than 83%. That’s particularly relevant given that the new variant is over 50% more transmissible than previous versions.
Just because the mandate is lifted doesn’t mean Texans should stop taking precautions, Carlson said. "The best way still to protect others and ourselves is by wearing a mask,” Carlson added. “The science hasn’t changed.”
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