Top Texas politicians are as prone to destructive culture wars as any in the nation. Our guys are just more creative in how they retreat when they lose. I’ll give you two examples: bathrooms and face masks.
You might recall that three years ago we had a bathroom crisis. Transgender persons were using the “wrong” bathrooms. Few men and women had noticed, but it was a crisis nonetheless.
School officials — that seditious group that we have just learned are teaching our children to hate America, and apparently teaching them to hide that hatred from their parents — could not be trusted to protect little girls and boys.
Clearly a law was needed. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was particularly insistent. He engineered a special session of the Legislature by holding up a necessary piece of legislation when the House refused to pass anything like a Senate bill. Gov. Greg Abbott controlled the special session’s agenda. Apparently nervous about Patrick’s ability to whip up the Republican right in a primary, Abbott belatedly voiced his support for a bathroom bill and put it on the agenda.
Meanwhile, Abbott got word to business leaders, many of whom were afraid of a national boycott like one previously levied on North Carolina over the issue, not to worry about it. House Speaker Joe Straus would kill the bill. Straus did, and Abbott publicly beat him up for it.
Then came the 2018 election, in which suburban women voters — the very sort of people Abbott and Patrick thought they were scaring — made it clear they were worried about school funding, not school bathrooms. They gave Democrats a 12-seat gain in the Legislature. So, at a press conference with Abbott kicking off the next legislative session, Patrick addressed the burning bathroom question again.
“When you win the battle, you don’t have to fight the battle again,” Patrick said. “I think it’s been settled, and I think we’ve won.”
Abbott smiled. Poof: Just another lost cause rewritten.
That brings us to face masks. For scientists, masks were always about science, even if at first they got it wrong. Worried that the public would scarf up the nation’s short supply of high-grade N-95 masks needed by medical personnel and focused on the transmission of many viruses by germs left on doorknobs and other surfaces, they told us not to wear masks but to wash our hands frequently and avoid touching our faces.
Since then, however, non-medical masks have become widely available and scientists have discovered that the novel coronavirus is much more commonly transmitted through tiny droplets we all emit when we speak, sing, cough, and sneeze. Scientists are in the business of learning and they have learned that even simple masks are important, even if they are more effective at stopping us from broadcasting our droplets than in keeping out other people’s droplets. We should all wear masks, they have also learned, because this peculiar virus infects many people who don’t display symptoms. I may have the virus and you may have the virus. And we don’t have enough reliable and inexpensive tests, so we can’t quarantine the spreaders. The only way to stop the spread now is for all of us to wear masks when we are close to anyone with whom we are not living.
But for many politicians, most notably the one who lives in the White House, masks are a matter of manliness and freedom, not of science. They are the stuff of cultural warfare.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff ordered the wearing of masks outside the home on April 16 when San Antonio had the lowest infection rate of any large Texas city with 918 cases. The rule required the wearing of masks when a person was within 6 feet of someone else in public. A violation could bring a $1,000 fine or six months in jail, but Wolff and Nirenberg declared an educational period and such penalties were not immediately applied.
Less than two weeks later, Abbott overruled San Antonio, Houston, and a few other cities and counties that had threatened fines as he announced the first stage of reopening businesses. He and Patrick both recommended the wearing of masks but said Texans valued their freedom.
Cynthia Brehm, the chairwoman of the Bexar County Republican Party, spoke for many conservatives when she held a press conference at City Hall opposing the mask requirement.
“If we don’t want to wear a mask, it’s our choice,” she said. “This is America, and we shouldn’t have to be forced or mandated to wear a mask.”
Abbott quickly followed with stages 2 and 3, beating his own timeline and including the opening of bars at 50 percent capacity and restaurants at 75 percent. Young people especially appear to have taken the reopening as a message that all was well. The average age of coronavirus-positive residents plummeted.
What the scientists had predicted happened. Cases and hospitalizations rose. On June 12, Wolff sent Abbott a letter asking him to reinstate local authorities’ ability to enforce mask requirements.
Abbott’s response: “Judge Wolff and I have a philosophical difference. He believes in government mandates, I believe in individual responsibility.”
It was a missed opportunity for Abbott. He could have reverted to a position letting mayors and county judges face the political heat for restrictions, but he didn’t — sort of.
A week later, Wolff stepped out on his own and announced that retail businesses would be fined $1,000 a day if they didn’t require customers to wear masks when they went inside. This was despite a clear warning from Attorney General Ken Paxton that local officials had no such powers. By this time the upward trend of cases and hospitalizations was getting steeper.
Abbott stunned a lot of people with his very strange response. He said his order allowed for Wolff to require business owners to enforce the rule. Wolff, he said, “finally figured that out.”
More likely is that Abbott had finally figured out that he had made a huge mistake in rushing his reopening schedule. Hospitalizations statewide had gone from 1,778 on May 1 to 2,166 on June 12 — and the increase in cases showed hospitalizations were about to skyrocket. Thank God Wolff had “finally figured it out.” Otherwise, Abbott would have to admit a mistake.
By June 26, hospitalizations had more than doubled to 5,102, forcing Abbott to suggest he shouldn’t have opened the bars. He closed them and three days later cut restaurants back to 50 percent capacity.
Finally on the eve of the Fourth of July weekend, with hospitalizations having passed 7,000, and fears of massive unmasked frolicking, Abbott waved the white flag of the latest culture war. He mandated the use of masks, with a $250 fine after a first warning.
Did he finally succumb to science? I suspect his decision was more likely driven by some of his big business backers, who understand that the economy will never recover until the coronavirus is under control.
Now Abbott is being called a traitor by his party’s right wing, including the likes of the county GOP executive committee in Odessa. And he doesn’t have Joe Straus to put the blame on. For those of you who want to blame the coronavirus explosion on the protests, please note that the pandemic has exploded in some of the smaller cities in Texas that had no significant protest marches, and that in cities such as New York where the pandemic is abating there was no significant spike.
This article has been updated to correct the location of the county Republican executive committee that criticized Gov. Greg Abbott to Odessa.