The COVID-19 pandemic is still raging, but here in Texas, the biggest threat to my life is coming from my own government.
On Tuesday, with COVID cases generally on the decline but still averaging about 5,000 new COVID cases and more than 200 deaths a day, and vaccine distribution picking up, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ceremoniously announced he was taking Texas out of lockdown. On March 10, the state will remove capacity limits on all businesses — including bars and concert venues — and end the mandate that people wear masks in public. For more context, only 13% of people have received their first vaccine in Texas, myself included, and 7% of people have been fully vaccinated, Abbott included.
This will be the first time in almost a year that businesses will be allowed to operate at 100% capacity, and the first time masks won’t be mandatory in public since July. But already this change is putting the onus of responsibility to protect people on businesses and individuals, which we know went so well the last time (note, dear reader, that it extremely did not). From the Texas Tribune, emphasis mine:
While he was allowing businesses to fully reopen, Abbott said that people still have the right to operate how they want and can “limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols.” Abbott’s executive order said there was nothing stopping businesses from requiring employees or customers to wear masks.
But soon after the announcement, the grocery chain H-E-B indicated in a statement that it won’t require customers to wear masks.
[…] If COVID-19 hospitalizations in any of Texas’ 22 hospital regions rise above 15% of the capacity in that region for seven straight days, a county judge “may use COVID mitigation strategies in their county,” according to the governor.
However, Abbott specified that “under no circumstance” can a county judge jail someone for not following their orders. They also cannot impose penalties on people for failing to wear masks — or on businesses for not mandating that customers or employees wear masks. And if local restrictions are triggered, businesses still must be allowed to operate at 50% capacity at the minimum.
Cool! Already we’re ushering in a system that will allow businesses to expose their workers to COVID by not requiring their customers to mask up when they enter, and there’s nothing a county judge can even mildly do to get them to adopt a mask policy that would better protect their employees.
President Joe Biden, who recently traveled to Texas after the winter storm and kept things cordial with Abbott, called Abbott’s decision to lift the mask mandate a “big mistake,” saying “The last thing — the last thing — we need is Neanderthal thinking in the meantime.” In response, Abbott decided to go on a tear about undocumented immigrants during an interview with Click 2 Houston. Because when you’re backed into a corner, what better way to distract attention from your inept leadership than to return to your comfort scapegoats? It’s unclear what Abbott is referring to in the clip below, though it may be this NBC report that the South Texas city of Brownsville has tested some asylum seekers positive for COVID.
Abbott’s pivot to bigotry shouldn’t have surprised anyone; the entire point of his decision is to placate the far-right in Texas. Abbott’s initial announcement came on Texas Independence Day, a surefire opportunity to pick up points with right-wing critics who’ve continually accused Abbott of oppressing them with his mask mandate and capacity limits since last summer. Even Shelley Luther, that Dallas-area hairdresser who pulled a major crowdfunding grift last spring when she was jailed for operating during the initial shutdown, has turned on Abbott, using her platform at this year’s CPAC to rail against his pandemic response after he so gloriously used her to politicize the initial shutdown. Abbott is reaping what he’s sown, and it turns out he sowed a lot of shit.
But beyond this executive order being a play to avoid getting primaried by a more right-wing challenger in 2022, Greg Abbott’s announcement, more infuriatingly, feels like the tip of the “Fuck You” iceberg, for a variety of reasons.
Of course, the undercurrent of this all is the pandemic. Over 42,000 Texans have died of COVID so far, with more than half of these people being Black or Latinx. Texans experienced so much unnecessary sickness and death because Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was too busy projecting the idea that grandparents would be willing to die of COVID in order to keep the economy going, and Abbott forced Texas out of lockdown far too soon.
It feels maddening because we’ve been here before! Right down to the narratives about personal responsibility! And that’s how we allowed more than 40,000 people to die in the first place. Last year, when counties tried to create their own mask orders, Abbott got in the way, just as this new order gets in the way now. Then, when cases began spiraling over the summer, he did the bare minimum to slow the spread of the virus only when it was far too late.
His order, which was not endorsed by three of Abbott’s four medical advisers, also contradicts mountains of warnings from local, state, and federal experts. It is obvious these changes will have the same effect that they did last time Abbott relied on personal responsibility instead of governing — spikes in cases, and surges in hospital capacity. Why are we doing this same thing all over again despite knowing the explicit result?
But perhaps what makes this feel more insulting is the context that Texas is living through right now. We are in the second week of recovery from Winter Storm Uri in Texas, and people are still just now getting their water turned back on. People are still traumatized, physically and mentally. As Sen. Ted Cruz tried to blame his daughters for a family trip to Cancun, and Abbott and others tried to blame the power failure on renewable energy, Texans suffered. About 35 deaths have been connected to the winter storms in Texas, though officials have said it could be weeks before an official death toll.
People got sick in droves to keep themselves warm. They banded together to help house and provide for the people who were left to live in the cold. And so far, everyone else has been to blame for Texas losing heat through a week-long freeze but the people whose policies and political plays allowed for Texas’ energy grid to fester into a crisis. From Texas Monthly‘s Chris Hooks:
Responsibility is something other people are supposed to take. After ERCOT’s board members resigned, Abbott issued a strikingly worded statement putting the blame for all that had happened at their feet. “When Texans were in desperate need of electricity, ERCOT failed to do its job and Texans were left shivering in their homes without power,” he said. “I welcome these resignations. The State of Texas will continue to investigate ERCOT and uncover the full picture of what went wrong.” No mention of the PUC’s responsibility to oversee ERCOT, his role in appointing the pet-rock PUC commissioners, or the role of the Legislature in creating the failed grid system.
All the while, we’re given no time to process this crisis before being dealt another one. On Twitter, people are already crowdsourcing lists of restaurants and businesses that are still mandating masks, as if this is just an extension of the mutual aid we saw two weeks ago.
All we know is trauma after trauma. And this isn’t an experience unique to Texas — people in Jackson, Mississippi, are still without water, and its Gov. Tate Reeves ended the state’s mask and capacity restriction as of today. Meanwhile, Oklahoma never had a mask mandate. But it does leave me to think about this rapid series of unfortunate events: our government’s hostile responses to the pandemic, the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the 2020 election, the white supremacist Capitol riot, the deep freeze. Through all of this, I cannot help but surmise that these people fucking hate us and they want us to rot.
Greg Abbott knows what is at stake, and knows all the good that the mask mandate has done to normalize mask wearing, and knows what will happen once restaurants and bars and music venues are allowed to operate at capacity again, and without mandating masks. And yet he’s taking this as an opportunity to protect his ass instead of protecting us. Another month, another attempt by our state’s government to kill us. And it will be workers, not yet a priority to be vaccinated, who will have no choice but to work around unmasked customers, and live with, and die by, the consequences of Greg Abbott’s actions. When will our leaders just admit that they want us dead instead of pretending that everything they do is for our safety and in our best interests?