Opening Up Texas—Bad Idea Gov. Abbott, Very Bad Idea

I have been a resident of the state of Texas since June of 2004, approaching 17 years now. A job brought me here and while I had not seen Texas in my future before that time, I have come to enjoy and appreciate quite a bit about this state and the area in which I live. Whether 17 years here makes me an official Texan is a matter of opinion, I suppose; but one thing is certain—as a resident of this state, Greg Abbott is my governor.  Speaking as a resident of Texas, I have to say that my governor is acting irresponsibly and foolishly.

On March 2, Governor Abbott issued Executive Order GA 34 opening up the state of Texas without restriction and rescinding the mask mandate. In fact, most previous executive orders related to COVID-19 have been “rescinded in their entirety.” GA 34 is rather clear that there are “no state-imposed COVID-19 operating limits for any business or any other establishment” and that there is “no state-imposed requirement to wear a face covering.” After he announced this at a press conference, the governor tweeted:

The ALL CAPS indicates it is really important, I suppose.

Governor Abbott distinguished between counties in Texas with high hospitalization rates and those without. For those without, people are “encouraged” to wear a mask when they cannot socially distance, but “no person may be required” to wear any sort of face covering. In counties with high hospitalization rates a county judge may order “mitigation strategies,” but not those that require “business and other establishments” to operate below 50% occupancy. He forbade any operating limits on religious services.

If, in these counties where a judge does impose mitigation strategies, someone violates them, what happens? Nothing much. Governor Abbott said in the order that confinement in jail may not be imposed as a penalty. If someone refuses to wear a face mask where it has been required, no penalty of any kind may be imposed. The only recourse a business/property owner has is to request law enforcement to remove the violator from the premises (under the Texas Penal Code, any property owner already has this right for any reason or no reason).

GA 34 does “strongly” encourage people to “use good-faith efforts” to follow the coronavirus health guidelines of the Texas Department of State Health and Human Services. Seriously, Governor Abbott? First, you open the state without restriction; then you ensure no real consequence for violating any requirement where such can be held up. Then you ask for “good-faith efforts” to follow DSHS guidelines? Why? If the threat is so inconsequential as to open the state entirely and to completely rescind a mask mandate, then are those good-faith efforts necessary? If the threat is so inconsequential that you think there is no need to use the power of your office in the interest of public health, why ask it of individuals? If the threat is so inconsequential, just open the state, rescind any mitigation mandates, and be done with it. Certainly, individuals can do what they want. I will be wearing a mask in public. But asking for a good-faith effort while simultaneously stating that it is safe enough to open up 100% makes no sense. If there is a reason for people to use good-faith efforts, then there is reason for you to impose mitigation efforts accordingly and proportionate to the need.

The Order goes on to say some other interesting things. Abbott says that the GA 34 does not preclude businesses and such from imposing requirements on employees and customers, including a face mask. But, of course, no one has to follow it. I suppose an employee could lose her or his job and a customer could be removed from the property, but that is about it. Employees have more incentive, obviously, to comply. The point is that there are no state sanctions. The Order goes on to talk about facilities such as nursing homes, jails, schools, etc. In a nutshell, the word is that these places should follow the guidelines of appropriate agencies (e.g., Health and Human Services, Texas Education Agency). Why those agencies and not businesses? Yes, I understand the difference between state agencies and privately owned businesses. But if it is safe to open 100% then why should even state agencies need to continue mitigation practices? If it is safe for businesses, then it is safe period. COVID-19 makes no such distinction between public and private.

In his press conference, Governor Abbott offered justifications for his actions. For instance, we now have vaccines, and those vaccines are being amply administered in the state of Texas. As of this writing, I just received my first shot this past Friday and will receive my second by the end of this month. There is no doubt that these vaccines are, as the Governor described them, “tools to protect Texans from the virus.” You know what other things are tools to protect Texans Governor Abbott? Mitigation strategies that you, by Executive Order GA 34, have rescinded. The availability of new tools does not mean we can abandon former tools.

Perhaps I am mistaken. He also said at the press conference: “Today’s announcement does not abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year.” To the contrary, Governor Abbott, an executive order that, in your words, opens the state 100% and cancels a mask mandate, does precisely that! Executive Order GA 34 effectively abandons those safe practices you claim Texans have mastered. That Texans are free to continue to practice them by individual choice does not speak to what your executive order does.

Governor Abbott may reply that Texans have gotten so good at mitigation practices that he is comfortable rescinding mandates and opening up the state. But would that not indicate that such practices are still necessary? Whether by law or free choice, that is the question, is it not? Are such mitigation efforts necessary? If so, then there is no reasonable justification to cancel them by Executive Order, leaving them to individual choice. And while I and other responsible Texans may freely choose to continue safe practices, an executive order that rescinds them will mean that I have to deal with many other Texans that will not continue them, because the governor of the state gave them permission. Since the pandemic began, I do not get out much. But even in the little that I do, I have heard people, far more than I am comfortable with, say that COVID-19 is a hoax. I have heard people proclaim the virus is overblown, despite more than half a million deaths of fellow American citizens. Setting aside the fact that there is no data that would indicate that Texans, en masse, will practice safe mitigation, it is not reasonable to place the burden on individual choice if such efforts are still necessary to protect the population. Individual choice is great until it negatively and harmfully affects others.

He also stated that this executive order “ensures that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny.” Do those who have died have the freedom to determine their own destiny? Do those who have recovered but now have permanent health problems and are most certainly looking at a life shorter than they would have had otherwise have the freedom to determine their own destiny? Does my freedom to determine my own destiny imply that my actions may justly impede this freedom for a fellow citizen? Governor Abbott’s statement here belies a myopic political philosophy that does not understand that individual freedom and the public good are not opposed but rely on each other. By his logic, let us no longer ban smoking in restaurants. If I may, for example, refuse to wear a mask for the health and safety of my fellow Texans, then why do I not have the right to blow cigarette smoke in their faces? Smoking in public places has been banned due to the known consequences of cigarette smoke. It is understood that the “freedom” to smoke does not extend to endangering the lives of others. Why should a virus that wreaked global havoc and killed millions be any different? Perhaps seatbelts should be a matter of individual choice. While we are at it, why have stop signs and traffic lights. Have not Texans mastered sound traffic practices? Abandon speed limits in school zones. Surely, people will drive safely to protect school children.

Abbott is correct. We have many tools now at our disposal to protect Texans from COVID-19. Use them. Do not relinquish the responsibility of your office and the state of Texas to employ those tools. Rather, use that power to make vaccines available to teachers and all employees in public education. Make those tools available to all healthcare workers. Partner with the efforts of the federal government for the good of all Texans. Yes, things are looking up. This is precisely the reason not to abandon mitigation strategies, but it is precisely the time to double down and take care of Texans.

If the short history of the past year is any indication, opening up now and rescinding mandates, especially mask wearing, is a guarantee that cases will surge when it does not have to be that way. Maintain mitigation strategies. Anything short of that is, as I said at the beginning of this post, irresponsible and foolish. The real message here is that Governor Abbott is willing to sacrifice hard working Texans who make substandard wages for “the economy” (read: profits).

Another irony here is that the day after he says that Texas is in good shape and that we can open up the economy, Abbott tweets this:

Could it be that when the inevitable spike in cases and deaths results from his irresponsible governance, the Governor of Texas has already prepared a scapegoat?

Texas, in my 17 years here, I have come to love you. We can do better. Governor Abbott, a resignation would be the right thing to do now.

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