The Governors of Texas and Mississippi yesterday lifted coronavirus restrictions, including mask requirements and capacity limitations on all businesses. Texas Governor Greg Abbott was the first to make the announcement followed a few hours later by Mississippi Republican Governor Tate Reeves.
As Austin Mayor Steve Adler said during yesterday’s Council meeting, Abbott’s decision goes against virtually all medical and scientific recommendations and guidance — including that a day earlier from Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (pictured at top), the young top county executive in Harris County who has risen to national prominence because of her relentless leadership during the pandemic, was even more blunt.
“Taking away critical public health interventions that we know are working won’t make our community safer, nor will it hasten our return to normalcy. Quite the opposite, every time public health measures have been pulled back, we’ve seen a spike in hospitalizations. If we start the climb now, we’d be starting from the highest starting point ever when it comes to our hospital population, an unacceptable and dangerous proposition. With the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, we’re inching closer to the finish line of this pandemic – now is not the time to reverse the gains we’ve worked so hard to achieve. At best, today’s decision is wishful thinking. At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”
Hidalgo makes several key points. First, she is right about spikes in hospitalization occurring every time that restrictions are rolled back. No one should know that better than Greg Abbott. When Abbott caved in to the furthest right elements of his party last year and rolled back restrictions, case levels soared and many more people died than otherwise would have. Hidalgo saw it first hand in Harris County.
Hidalgo is also correct both on the science and in simple math when she notes, “If we start the climb (in new cases) now, we’d be starting from the highest starting point ever when it comes to our hospital population, an unacceptable and dangerous proposition.”
She also doesn’t spare words about Abbott’s motives, raising the possibility that Abbott’s move “is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”
More on that and other potential Abbott motivations in a minute, but first let’s ask a question that few, if any, have asked so far: Mississippi, what were you thinking? You were showing signs of pulling ahead of Texas in the rankings of who rates the lowest in various measures. For example, for a while Mississippi appeared to be holding up better than Texas in the deep freeze. That was before the water crisis in Jackson, with the whole City still under a boiled water notice while huge swaths of the City don’t have running water at all. But, still. (Jackson’s water crisis appears to result from decades of not investing in upgrading the water system.)
I kid Mississippi, but Jackson is a nice place and has a dynamic African American Mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba. Mayor Lumumba grew up in Jackson, but has a Texas connection. He is a 2008 graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston. Also, from a public health standpoint, it looks like Mississippi came out ahead of Texas in this round too. Unlike Abbott, Mississippi Governor Reeves let municipalities keep mask bans in place if they preferred.
Mayor Lumumba quickly announced that Jackson’s mask requirement would stay in place. He explained, “Healthcare officials are still advising us it’s not yet safe to lift the restriction, not only because we’re not past COVID, but because we’re seeing variants of the virus. Some healthcare workers say we need to wear two masks.” Lumumba concluded, “Our policy is always informed by science, doctors, and their expertise, not our feelings.”
So now Texas Mayors and County Judges can wish they had a Governor as open minded as the one in Mississippi.
Overall Mississippi shares something with Texas besides its rankings on things like poverty and number of uninsured citizens. Both states have a lot of wonderful people, but a majority of the voters keep electing ideological right wing Republicans to all statewide offices.
Ideology Again Wins The Wrestling Match for Abbott’s Soul – Public Health Loses Again
Abbott’s coronavirus order could be a textbook example of governance by ideology, if that were actually taught in Texas schools. For instance his order reads, “Individuals are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings over the nose and mouth wherever it is not feasible to maintain six feet of social distancing from another person not in the same household, but no person may be required by any jurisdiction to wear or to mandate the wearing of a face covering.”
Among other things here, Abbott acknowledges the medical and health protection wisdom of wearing masks, but then right wing anti-mask ideology triumphs. As Abbott explained in a statement accompanying the order, “Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared, but it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations, and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed. Today’s announcement does not abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year. Instead, it is a reminder that each person has a role to play in their own personal safety and the safety of others. With this executive order, we are ensuring that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny.”
This formulation contains at least two pillars of right wing/Republican ideology, the traditional concept of personal responsibility and “the freedom (of families) to determine their own destiny.” These two things don’t always go together and the latter one is clearly winning out among today’s Republicans. A good example of how that’s working occurred at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, where conference MCs were roundly booed and jeered when they asked attendees to wear masks — in accordance with rules at the hotel where the conference was held. This has been the reaction of tens of thousands of Republicans over and over again.
Plus, where COVID is concerned, when anti-mask Republicans exercise the so called right to determine their own destiny, they determine not only their own destiny, but also risk the destiny of anyone with whom they come in contact.
The other core part of Abbott’s lifting of COVID restrictions is allowing all businesses to operate at 100% capacity. Here, Abbott may sincerely feel for the multitudes of business people who have suffered financial losses during the pandemic — and many the loss of their entire business. Once again, however, ideology triumphs. Even if he wanted to go against scientific advice in an attempt to help businesses, why eliminate the mask mandate too? From a public health standpoint it would make more sense to keep that in place to protect employees, owners, and customers in businesses that can operate fine with masks i.e. not restaurants or bars. Instead Abbott leaves that up to individual business owners to decide; which is no favor to them.
Also due to ideology, Abbott has failed to offer any comprehensive program to help Texas businesses survive the pandemic. They just have to get by on his ideology.
Ultimately, one of the most dangerous responsibilities will fall on whatever essential workers get to be the ones to enforce mask restrictions where businesses decide to keep them in place. Countless times around the country workers in this position have suffered abuse, ranging from maskless Americans angrily spewing droplets in their face to outright violence. Of course essential workers in general will be some of the main folks endangered by Abbott’s lifting of mask and occupancy restrictions. Most of these workers receive very low pay.
The Austin American-Statesman solicited opinions from some local business people, including the music sector. There the sentiment appeared to be against Abbott’s order. For instance Dianne Scott, publicity director of the Continental Club, worried about the risks to workers and added that the orders might decrease the chances that people will get vaccinated.
Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District, questioned whether the order would help with concert attendance anyway, succinctly pointing out that “consumer confidence for in-person experiences is low due to public health realities.” Cowan also worried about another potential sinister outcome from Abbott’s order: a “return to 100% will not only negatively affect public health, but also may trigger outstanding debt as due, by manufacturing the false public perception of financial viability for cultural tourism businesses.”
On the other side of the ledger, longtime Austin bar impresario, Bob Woody praised Abbott’s decision.
Laura Huffman, CEO of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, however, urged continued wearing of masks. “There are practical things each of us can do to keep ourselves and those around us safe as businesses reopen to full capacity – one of those is choosing to wear a mask in public,” Huffman added. “We believe a mask on each of us is a win for all of us and urge businesses to continue implementing measures that protect both employees and patrons.”
Now, let’s return to Lina Hidalgo’s assertion that, “at worst,” Abbott’s move, is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.” From an ideological and political standpoint, which is pretty clearly what drives Abbott, it is certainly preferable for him to be talking about the coronavirus as opposed to the collapse of the state power grid and the failure of state government to winterize the grid though warned to do so after a similar, though not as bad, disaster happened in 2011. Even when he’s being criticized, including in the state and national media, Abbott would likely prefer to be criticized for lifting coronavirus restrictions. After all, much of the Republican base to whom he is pandering agrees with his rollbacks of coronavirus restrictions. On the other hand, many Republicans were among those shivering in the cold during the days-long power outages. So, politically, it is better for Abbott when the conversation is about coronavirus.
Meanwhile at the Texas Capitol
Now, let’s take a close look at the legislative “investigations” of the grid collapse. Predictably the hearings have mainly featured legislators trying to pin the blame on officials from ERCOT and the Public Utilities Commission while competing to get their one-liners on the evening news. The contest to be quoted the most on news shows appears to have been won by the creepily sanctimonious State Senator Brandon Creighton of Conroe. He made lots of news shows with his observation, “This is not a chamber of commerce update. This is the largest train wreck in the history of deregulated electricity.”
That spotlight grabbing declaration leaves unanswered the question of what to do about it. The more the legislators talk, the further it seems they get away from a solution. It is not really that complicated though. There are two obvious fundamental problems. The first is the failure to weatherize, or winterize, power generation plants and the power grid after recommendations to do so ten years ago — or 31 years ago, depending on how one looks at it. The second is the devastating “spikes” in bills suffered by Texans who signed up with private power providers with fluctuating rates. If legislators want to dig deeper that is their prerogative, and maybe they will find something. But, if they fail to address these two glaringly obvious areas, then the rest of their blustering just amounts to diversion and finger pointing.
In closing let’s return briefly to Abbott’s potential motivations on the rollback of coronavirus restrictions. Abbott’s move comes as the new Biden Administration is making headway on reducing the number of new infections and in getting vaccines available and distributed — although there’s still a long way to go, especially on the latter. A fundamental pillar of Biden’s national plan is the wearing of masks — although as President he cannot simply require that of everyone. By rolling back mask requirements in Texas, Abbott is refusing to cooperate with Biden’s program. In doing so the Governor simultaneously panders to the right while making it more difficult for Biden to succeed. Could Greg Abbott really be so cynical that he would knowingly cause more people to lose their lives in order to hurt Biden politically and help himself? The Governor’s record provides a very clear answer. Yes.
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