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Living in a Red State of Deja Vu

With COVID cases surging and GOP governors refusing to act, we're playing the same terrible games all over again.

A side-by-side collage of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wearing a mask and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at a TPUSA summit
Photos via jbsapublicaffairs/Flickr and gageskidmore/Flickr; Remix by Samantha Grasso

I can’t remember a time in the past year and a half where I haven’t felt some kind of helplessness. The intensity of the feeling shifted throughout the year, especially because I live in Texas, which is under the control of immoral Republican leadership. There’s no escaping it.

Currently contributing to that feeling of hopelessness are new figures the White House made public Monday, which point to an extremely alarming COVID trend for my state and others under GOP control as the Delta variant continues to tear through the country.

According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID cases in Texas and Florida accounted for a third of all cases reported across the U.S. over the past week. From the Houston Chronicle:

Texas reported an average of 8,851 cases per day over the last week. Florida reported an average of 12,168. The national average was 66,606 new cases per day. The two states account for about a sixth of the nation’s population.

What a cool and good stat, that a third of the nation’s COVID cases from the past week came from the states that house a sixth of the nation’s population. Real meaty figures for feeding that helplessness feeling.

There is a “silver lining,” sure. The U.S. set a record for COVID vaccine shots last week, with 3 million people getting the vaccine, the highest since the week of July 4. But Florida and Texas are 31st and 38th in the country for vaccines, with 59 and 55 percent of adults fully vaccinated, respectively.

This increase in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths has all been fueled by Delta, which is much more contagious than past COVID variants, according to the CDC’s weekly COVID data review. Cases and severe outcomes are happening more often in areas where vaccination rates are low, while in some rare cases vaccinated people can still get sick from Delta. “Seven states with the lowest vaccination rates represent just about 8.5% of the US population, but account for more than 17% of cases,” according to White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients.

Delta is responsible for these rising cases, but I’m reminded of the GOP leaders who have just as easily enabled the variant to flourish. In March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded his state-wide mask order, and in May he again banned local governments and schools from imposing their own mask requirements and businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from customers. Last week, he also banned governments from setting capacity limits on restaurants and other businesses, even if the region’s COVID hospitalization rate is high, and from requiring vaccines that are under emergency use authorization. He also ended federal unemployment benefits early in June, forcing the hands of Texans who’ve been out of work because of the pandemic.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has reacted similarly to local pandemic restrictions at the first sight of cases falling. In April he banned vaccine passport requirements by local governments, and in May he superseded local government mandates on masks and also banned businesses from requiring vaccine passports. He also ended federal unemployment benefits early. This week, the Florida governor banned schools from mandating masks and restricting capacities, saying a child’s decision to mask up would be left up to parents.


The GOP’s COVID Trap

Of course, both governors have pushed this idea of “personal responsibility” over government restrictions. But we’ve seen this song and dance all before. I think back to the last time I felt quite this helpless, across last May and June. Abbott, in tandem with DeSantis and other state-level GOP leaders across the country, had re-opened the state from “lockdown,” while reversing business capacity restrictions enacted by local governments, and outright banning local governments from requiring residents to wear masks. Abbott walked back his orders the following July, when cases predictably surged, mandating face masks in public and limits on public gatherings.

I can’t help but note that when Abbott began prioritizing public health over the concerns from his base regarding government overreach, he faced significant backlash from these supporters. And so of course at the first sight of COVID rates falling, he rescinded all mandates, and blocked any other entity, government or private, from imposing their own as a safeguard to Abbott’s overconfidence. These governors are abdicating responsibility because they don’t want blood on their hands, but literal blood takes its place.

It’s hard not to get histrionic when I think about the harm that resulted from these government decisions in May, and the people, family, who should be alive today. Maybe Abbott and DeSantis aren’t trying to kill us, but they’re sure doing whatever they can to prevent local governments from implementing policies that could prevent people from dying, all to avoid looking like the bad guys in 2022 or 2024. Looking back at what happened last year, I can only assume that mounting cases, hospitalizations, and deaths will force their hands to allow for local mask and vaccination mandates to take place. It’s only a question of how many more people our governors will wait to get COVID, how many more people they will wait for to die.