A woman waits to vote at Lion's Field Adult and Senior Center. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

I voted early in the July 14 runoff election, wearing a mask. It was at once a simple act of civic duty and an expression of respect for the health and welfare of my fellow San Antonians. The poll workers and dozen or so voters in line at Lions Field on Broadway that morning all wore masks.

Gov. Greg Abbott, whose flip-flopping decisions undoubtedly have contributed to the growing spread of the coronavirus in San Antonio and other Texas cities, exempted voters and churchgoers from his statewide mask mandate issued on July 2.

This is a big mistake: The inside of a church filled with worshippers or a polling site filled with voters and poll workers is just as dangerous as, say, a bar or restaurant filled with patrons.

Abbott said he issued the exemption to ensure that voters who do not have a mask will not lose their right to vote. That’s a curious position for a Republican to take when the party in Texas has gone to great lengths to prevent people from voting who lack approved identification.

It’s lot easier to get a mask or other face covering than meet voter ID hurdles in Texas, especially for the working poor who often hold multiple jobs, rely on public transportation, and cannot afford day care.

The misguided argument that making people wear a mask is a violation of an individual’s constitutional rights is a fringe view, one without legal standing and not shared by GOP moderates, much less Democrats and independent voters. Abbott’s order seems to be yet another instance where he seeks to placate the extreme wing of his base at the inevitable expense of the general public’s health and well-being.

I have yet to meet anyone unable to obtain a mask. No voters are being protected here by Abbott’s exemptions. Just the opposite: Voters and poll workers are being endangered by it. Do you want to stand in line for 30 minutes next to someone not wearing a mask? About 60 percent of the county’s election officials are over the age of 65, according to Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen.

The risk will be smaller for this election than the next one. The real danger is the November election, when a far greater number of people will line up Oct. 19-30 for early voting and on Nov. 3.

Turnout could exceed 60 percent of the county’s registered voters for this intensely polarizing presidential election, unless people are afraid to vote. Nearly 600,000 voters, or more than 57 percent of all registered voters, turned out in 2016. With population growth and the nature of what is assumed to be a Trump-Biden contest, expect serious crowds.

Social distancing at the polls will be a challenge, a practice that depends more on the collective good will of citizens rather than the city and county’s limited ability to enforce its own emergency orders.

The issue of the mask exemption for voters would be less of a concern had state elected leaders agreed to make Texas one of the 29 states allowing vote-by-mail in federal elections. The Republican Party cites the risk of voter fraud as the reason behind its opposition to a measure of convenience and common sense. It’s no secret the real reason is, again, a desire to discourage higher turnout.

Abbott himself, as the state’s attorney general, made a great deal of his efforts to expose alleged voter fraud. As my colleague Rick Casey noted in a May 5 column, Abbott failed to identify a single political contest in which alleged voter fraud influenced the outcome. The actual individual cases Abbott found and prosecuted were inconsequential and not part of a pattern or organized effort.

It takes fortitude in the current political reality to make tough decisions based on science and data rather than political calculation. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have demonstrated such fortitude. Abbott and other state officials have not.

The result has been a confusing sequence of contradictory emergency orders and public pronouncements. People have been left to make up their own minds about what they believe. The result? Texas is among the very worst states for the rising number of coronavirus positives, hospitalizations, and deaths.

With so many people refusing to embrace strict social distancing and mask use, reversing the current situation will be difficult. We simply cannot afford to shut down again, but such a drastic move could become necessary if the virus spreads out of control.

Every individual can help avoid an extreme outcome by voting in political leaders with fortitude. And when you do go to the polls, wear a mask.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.