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As Gov. Greg Abbott made his announcement last week that he was freeing Texas from statewide COVID-19 restrictions, most of the business and political leaders in attendance at Montelongo’s Mexican Restaurant in Lubbock were maskless, even though Abbott’s order requiring masks wouldn’t be lifted until a week later. 

Despite the fact that few in the ample audience were eating as Abbott spoke, and though he noted “that each person has a role to play in their own personal safety and the safety of others,” he did not ask the audience to mask up.

The audience members were, however, practicing one public health practice. They were not smoking. Nearly two decades ago, after scientific studies demonstrated the health hazards of secondhand smoke, Lubbock banned smoking in most restaurants over the objections of many business owners. But Rudy Rosales, Montelongo’s owner, is a believer today.

“I don’t allow smoking,” he told me. “I don’t even like them smoking in front of my front door.”

In Texas, cities are permitted to outlaw smoking in public places. But they are not allowed to require reasonable protections against a deadly pandemic that remains at dangerous levels and could easily spike again – as it has after previous relaxations of mandated precautions.

 Smoking and COVID-19 are in some ways alike and in some ways not. Both kill, although smoking takes a longer time. 

Both are airborne. But we can see and smell cigarette and cigar smoke. The droplets carrying the novel coronavirus are almost entirely hidden from us. We can move away from smokers. We don’t know who is carrying the virus. 

Importantly, people who contract cancer because of secondhand smoke do not spread the disease. Those who contract COVID-19 can become superspreaders. This danger is increasing with some of the new coronavirus strains that are even more communicable than the original strains. Houston last week became the first U.S. city found to have all six of the virus variants that are worrying scientists.

Another parallel: Many smokers felt they had the right to smoke virtually wherever they wanted, and with a militancy that today is difficult to imagine. In the mid-1970s, I was having lunch with my editor in a crowded Manhattan restaurant. A woman on the banquette next to me parked her lit cigarette on my side of her table and the smoke was drifting directly up into my face. I politely asked if she would please move the ashtray. As she reached to comply, her male companion, also a smoker, angrily asked me if I wanted to step outside. Fortunately she calmed him down. 

Now many people feel – with passion – that mask requirements violate their freedom. Some get angry with grocery store employees when confronted while others have gone so far as to mount armed demonstrations. As with the militant smokers, they are cavalier about the risks of their behavior to others.

There’s an important way in which the parallels between smoking bans and COVID-19 measures break down.  Most restaurateurs resisted smoking bans because they thought they would be bad for business. But some who tried it found the reverse was true. Two years after Lubbock’s restaurant smoking ban was fully implemented, a Texas Tech University study found a significant increase in gross restaurant and restaurant bar revenues. Today it’s hard to imagine restaurants considering allowing smoking as a marketing strategy.

Measures to fight the pandemic have severely impacted many businesses, but especially bars and restaurants. Since there has been no way to identify potential spreaders, bars and restaurants were for a time shut down. Until Abbott’s announcement they were operating under conditions that made profitability very difficult. Some have shut, possibly permanently. Others have been able to limp along only because of forgivable federal loans. 

Now comes Abbott to declare Texas “100 percent open,” including the removal of all restrictions on restaurants. It is a huge gamble, made with other people’s money and other people’s health and even lives.

The gamble as to health and lives is clear. There is a good chance that the easing of masks and other requirements will lead, once again, to another tragic surge in infections.

On the other hand, there is good reason to believe that “opening up the economy” will not fully restore the economy. Abbott said it is time to rely on the personal responsibility of citizens rather than on the power of the state. But to be responsible is to take into account the actions of the irresponsible. 

Many restaurateurs have already said they will keep COVID-19 restrictions in place because they know many people will stay away if they don’t – not only out of fear for themselves but also for the loved ones they could infect. Even the small number of people I know who are fully vaccinated say they won’t go to crowded indoor spaces until COVID-19 is defeated. Only when we all feel like it is not irresponsible to fully mix in public, at restaurants and sporting events, at rallies and Fiesta, will the economy fully recover. 

The dark side of Abbott’s gamble is that it could push that time much further away. 

With the availability of vaccinations ramping up, it is possible that most of us could be vaccinated by this fall. Meanwhile, Congress is days away from passing a massive bill to bolster individuals, families, and businesses until at least Labor Day and to help schools open safely. Now is the time to maintain and even increase our efforts against the pandemic. Abbott is doing the opposite.

In what should be a time of discipline and optimism, he is courting disaster. 

Rick Casey

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.