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The fix was in by Feb. 25, as any fool could tell. That’s when Gov. Greg Abbott issued a teasing prediction at a Corpus Christi press conference in response to what he termed a “great question” from someone asking when mandatory mask use in Texas would be lifted.

Five days later, on Texas Independence Day, Abbott appeared before a compliant Lubbock Chamber of Commerce to announce an end to mask requirements and the lifting of other executive orders meant to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus, effective March 10.

“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” Abbott declared, after talking up the state economy. “Let me tell you why now is the right time to do this: Texas is far better positioned now then when I issued my last executive order back in October, and we are in a completely different position than when I issued my first executive order last March.”

Not to be outdone by their counterparts in Lubbock who hosted Abbott, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce CEO Richard Perez and the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce CEO Cristina Aldrete both issued statements of obsequious praise for Abbott while ignoring the mask issue. To her credit, Marina Gonzales, CEO of San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the move “not only puts many vulnerable people at risk, it also poses a serious threat to our small business community.”

Good luck to the thousands of good people who work as servers, grocery checkers, and at retail outlets of all kinds. You will be at heightened risk as unmasked customers turn to you for service.

An average of 200 Texans are dying each day from COVID-19. January was the single worst month since the pandemic hit Texas in March 2020, and the gains made since then can be easily reversed by careless indifference to the virus. Abbott, however, thinks the time is right.

Drawing distinctions between now and the early days of the pandemic, Abbott cited the broad availability of masks and other protections, the advent of antiviral drugs used to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and the mass vaccination efforts. The numbers he cited in the latter instance masked the reality that the vast majority of adults in the state and everyone under the age of 16 remain unprotected. The most optimistic predictions suggest it will be months before most residents will be able to get vaccinated.

Abbott lamely suggested “personal responsibility” would now supplant his past executive orders in guiding people to act responsibly. Too many people will not act responsibly, given the choice, and Abbott, like the rest of us, knows this. That’s why we have speed limits and mandatory seat belt use, laws restricting underage drinking and recreational drug use, and other ways of legislating public behavior. Given a free pass, many people act in their own selfish interests.

Elected leaders across the state and nation decried the decision as a major threat to the state’s recovery as vaccine distribution lags, coronavirus variants continue to spread, and the prospect of a spring break with full bars and beaches portend yet another spike.

“Risky,” “reckless,” “dangerous” were among the most commonly used words used to describe Abbott’s untimely decision, and in the more pungent language of Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, “bullshit.”

Even President Joe Biden weighed in.

“The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask and forget it,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Wednesday when asked about Abbott’s decision. “It’s critical, critical, critical, critical that they follow the science. Wash your hands, hot water. Do it frequently, wear a mask and stay socially distanced. And I know you all know that. I wish the heck some of our elected officials knew it.”

Lubbock County in West Texas is rated “high risk” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Hopkins University, and other national COVID-19 tracking entities, the third highest of five warning levels. The majority of 30 million Texans, however, live in urban areas where the pandemic rages at far worse rates.

Harris, Dallas, El Paso, Nueces, and the Rio Grande Valley counties all are rated “extremely high risk,” the worst of five levels, with each metro area suffering a positivity rate higher than 10% as of Wednesday, according to the New York Times Risk Tracker, a daily compilation of state and federal COVID-19 data. Bexar, Travis, and Webb counties are rated “very high risk,” the second highest warning level.

Ignoring that reality, Abbott basked in the chamber of commerce’s applause as he rolled out his announcements with careful pause lines, political theater costumed in leadership and economic messaging.

“This entire country has paid the price for political leaders who ignored the science when it comes to the pandemic,” White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki said Wednesday when asked about Abbott and other governors ignoring the counsel of public health experts.

Federal policy is now guided by the science, but that does not mean life in a red state is getting any safer. What can you do? Get vaccinated. Ignore the news from Lubbock. Wear your mask, observe social distancing, stay patient, and stay safe. That’s the advice I have heard three times in the space of one week from Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director.

 

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.