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A Corpus Christi reporter attending a Thursday press conference with Gov. Greg Abbott in that Coastal Bend city asked the governor when restrictions on social distancing and mask use will be lifted in Texas.

“Great question,” Abbot replied. A troublesome question, actually, one that drew an unexpected response from the governor.

“We’re working right now on evaluating when we’re gonna be able to remove all statewide orders, and we will be making announcements about that pretty soon,” Abbott said, without specifying when that announcement will come or what it will be.

The clear inference is that politics will trump public health in Texas, not for the first time in the pandemic. Abbott clearly implied that mask use and other restrictions will soon be lifted, well before any credible public health officials deem such measures safe or prudent.

Here is what the governor should have said:

“I do not know when we will lift restrictions or stop mandating mask use. This is not the time to let down our collective guard. The program to vaccinate millions of Texans is going to take many months, and the coronavirus continues to present a serious danger to the public health and economy of the state. More than 2.2 million Texans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and more than 42,000 Texans have died, according to the Texas Department of Health Services. As governor I will do everything in my power to end this deadly pandemic. We are imploring everyone to use a mask, practice social distancing and hand washing, and stay safe.”

Why is it so hard to stand firm in the face of resistance from a minority of citizens and lawmakers? Those in the governor’s political base who have opposed his executive orders and who opposed last year’s shutdown continue to ignore the science at our collective peril. Abbott took limited measures last year, yet even those undoubtedly saved thousands of lives and helped contain the viral spread. A complete economic opening and recovery will not happen as long as there is a major public health emergency. It will not be achieved through executive order.

“Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions. Although we have been experiencing large declines in cases and hospital admissions over the past six weeks, these declines follow the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic,” said Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the newly appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday in her first day in office.

She and other scientists have said a relaxation of mask use and social distancing now could lead to a new spike in infections after weeks of steady decline in the spread.

The pandemic is an emergency, and the need for strong, unwavering leadership is an urgent need. People who believe that need to make themselves heard as some legislators and others around the state lobby Abbott to lift restrictions.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have shown strong, unwavering leadership as the pandemic approaches its one-year anniversary in the city. They have done so even when that meant challenging Abbott and other state officials whose response to the pandemic has been far less decisive. The local leaders co-signed a letter to the governor on Friday urging continued vigilance.

Nirenberg reacted quickly to Abbott’s teasing “stay tuned” statement in Corpus Christi when the San Antonio Report’s JJ Velasquez pressed him on the matter at the Thursday evening City-County briefing. Velasquez is creator and lead writer of The Curve newsletter, which goes out weekday evenings to subscribers.

Nirenberg said any action by the governor to lift restrictions would be a “big mistake.”

“We’re seeing immunity increase,” Nirenberg said. “In fact, I was very excited to see the numbers of vaccines that have been administered in our community. So far, I think it’s about 225,000. But the health professionals are clear that, especially with the variants that are transmitted in our community, now is not the time to let down our masks.”

Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2), sitting in for Wolff, agreed.

“Even with the vaccine, our public health professionals are telling us to continue to wear a mask, and so I think it would be it would be contrary to our public health guidance,” Rodriguez said. “But it would also, I think, send the wrong message to our community that somehow we’re over the hump.”

Only about 5% of the state’s adult population has been vaccinated. Public health experts say it will take 70% to 80% of the population being protected before Texas achieves herd immunity. Children under 16, who constitute nearly one-fourth of the state’s population, are not being vaccinated at this time.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease doctor, has said it’s impossible to predict when mask use can be ended but that it could be necessary into 2022. He may not be popular with those who resent the annoying and inconvenient precautions being mandated, but he speaks with authority.

No one suggests we have to like wearing masks or social distancing. It’s easier to conform, however, if you consider your role in slowing the spread of a deadly virus and saving lives, maybe even your own.

Wear your mask, Gov. Abbott, and please use your authority to make sure all Texans continue to do the same.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.