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The GOP’s COVID Trap

Republicans are trying to turn the pandemic into a "personal responsibility" issue. That's bullshit.

Today, my boyfriend and I are going for a drive. If we were living in the “before,” we would have been in Canada right now, wrapping up a long-planned two-week vacation. These plans were reasonably cancelled during the pandemic.

The pandemic has made work worse for him, and scarce for me, so on one of my new “free” days, we’re taking a drive. We’re getting coffee (in masks and gloves), winding through Texas Hill Country until we pick up lunch in town (in masks and gloves), and finding ourselves a vacant spot in a big park to eat and rest. 

This is as adventurous as we’ve gotten since we started sheltering in place in early March. My boyfriend’s health conditions mean that we’re not taking the risks that our friends have, but I don’t judge them for getting haircuts and going to bars and starting “social pods” to cope with living alone. I certainly don’t judge them for going out to protest the Austin Police Department for killing Mike Ramos, a Black and Hispanic man who died on April 24, and for the APD’s near-lethal attacks on protesters

But it is especially difficult for me to judge them when our governor, Greg Abbott, has prioritized the economy over people, and continues to do that while shaming people for the very behavior that he’s allowed. 

From the Dallas Morning News on Tuesday, emphasis mine: 

Gov. Greg Abbott says 20-something Texans are catching coronavirus in greater numbers. And he’s rebuking them for not taking safety precautions, such as wearing masks, when they go out.

[…]

“A lot of people have let down their guard,” he said on KLBK-TV’s noon newscast in Lubbock.

“If you do not use these safe strategies, you will test positive,” the governor warned. He referred to wearing a face covering, washing hands and maintaining a safe distance from others when Texans go out.

Though his administration couldn’t provide statistics, Abbott spoke of a “record pace” of infections among 20-somethings during an appearance on KRGV-TV in McAllen.

“What we’re seeing there is that people of that age group, they’re not following these appropriate best health and safety practices,” he said. “They’re not wearing face masks, they’re not sanitizing their hands, they’re not maintaining the safe distancing practices. And as a result, they are contracting COVID-19 at a record pace in the state of Texas.”

The context for these scoldings is frightening. On Wednesday, Texas reported an 11% surge in hospitalizations. It’s the fifth straight day there has been a new high in that category; the state has reported new highs for eight days across the past two weeks.”

But despite this — and despite a rising rate of positive tests in recent weeks — Abbott repeatedly refused to change tack, insisting that COVID is an issue of individual responsibility and not one that policy can solve. From the Morning News again, emphasis mine:

Asked on KGRV about requiring masks, Abbott held firm.

People should not be put in jail for failing to wear a face mask because of a pandemic — you know, nothing they did caused this,” he said.

On KRIS-TV in Corpus Christi, he expressed concern about beachgoers.

“It is a fact that we have seen along beaches in the state of Texas, people gathering very closely together whether it be in Galveston or even in North or South Padre areas,” he said.

“And so people need to be real responsible, when they go out to beaches as they go to other social gathering events … because COVID-19 still exists,” he said. “You must be very careful as you go to these locations. Otherwise, you’re increasing the chances you will get it.

This problem is manifesting across the country, where Republican leaders are throwing up their hands and shrugging at this impossible conundrum in front of them: the people think COVID is over but it’s not! And I’m doing everything in my power to stop them from making terrible mistakes that might risk their life or someone else’s! Everything short of actually doing something, though! And I can’t make people wear masks without sending them straight to JAIL if they don’t wear them so what is the point really!

Clearly, it’s bullshit. No one’s hands are tied. Abbott walked back his mask comments on Wednesday when he announced he would allow local governments to require that stores and businesses require them. It’s a significant change from his previous position of banning individual counties from mandating masks — enough of a shift to show that Abbott knows he has the ability to protect people more, but won’t unless he’s forced to. The fact that he only did it after coming under significant pressure, and after weeks in which he watched what was clearly a ticking time bomb and did nothing, is shameful.

Abbott is not alone in having to be dragged into doing the bare minimum. COVID continues to spread without much interference from leadership in multiple Republican-led states. Arizona, for instance, also reported a record high of cases on Tuesday and a high for inpatient beds for patients with suspected and confirmed cases on Monday. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has “encouraged” physical distancing and mask wearing, and his office has announced plans to expand testing and contact tracing. Despite concerns from hospital leaders that they may experience problems with staffing and testing, Ducey has dismissed concerns that hospitals will soon be overwhelmed.

“This virus is not going away,” Ducey said at a news conference last week, according to the Los Angeles Times. “This virus is something we need to learn to live with.”

As of today, Florida has experienced its second largest spike of new cases, which Gov. Ron DeSantis has tried to attribute to increased testing. According to the New York Times, this is a company line that Vice President Mike Pence has encouraged governors to deliver as an explanation for all the increased cases. This happens to be a lie; as the Times noted, “seven-day averages in several states with coronavirus outbreaks have increased since May 31, and in at least 14 states, positive cases have outstripped the average number of tests that have been administered.”

That didn’t stop Pence, though. “I would just encourage you all, as we talk about these things, to make sure and continue to explain to your citizens the magnitude of increase in testing,” he said on a call with governors. “And that in most of the cases where we are seeing some marginal rise in number, that’s more a result of the extraordinary work you’re doing.”

Extraordinary work indeed: Florida’s ratio of positive tests to overall tests per week is climbing, having risen steadily from 2% the week of May 17 to 4.9% the week of June 7. And yet, DeSantis has ruled out shutting down nonessential work, and seems to have no plans for mandating masks despite encouraging people to wear them.

“You have to be able to have a cohesive society. That’s the best way to be able to deal with the impacts of the virus,” DeSantis said on Tuesday. “To suppress a lot of working-age people at this point, I don’t think would be effective.”

Meanwhile, other Republican leaders — Indiana Rep. Jim Banks and Wisconsin Rep. Tom Tiffany — are trying to gut federal funding for schools that don’t reopen by Sept. 8. It is absolutely fine, though — we’ll just keep up this “return to normal” and continue getting fun headlines of the “young people really shitting the bed on COVID” variety for weeks to come, like this one from Fox News: “16 people test positive after night out at Florida bar.”

It is clear that Republican leaders are the wrong people to be lecturing their constituents over wearing masks and staying six feet apart while clinking pints at the bar and not sharing pool toys at the beach, when they won’t do a damn thing about it. They’re afraid that answering to the wrong people will cost them their money and their power and their ability to run a short, passionless presidential campaign one day. They’re somehow more worried about fueling the culture war over mask-wearing than making sure the people who are exercising their speech are doing so in a safe manner—or, heaven forbid, in giving people and businesses the financial support they need to avoid reopening in the first place.  

Do these leaders know the pandemic is still happening? Because they’re sure not acting like it is.

I haven’t been to the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death, but I’m frequently told by friends and colleagues who have attended that protesters are wearing masks and gloves. They know we’re still living during a pandemic, but are taking risks to fight the “other pandemic” affecting Black people. These are the people crowdfunding masks for protesters and handing them out to people released from jail. They know what’s happening and they’re trying to keep themselves and other people safe while fighting several forms of state violence. 

We are watching people make sacrifices for liberation. That is more than I can say for Abbott, or Ducey, or DeSantis, who would rather watch their hospitals fill up and pray the virus away than get in the way of their own financial interests to stop people from getting sick and dying.

This is what will filter in and out of my brain on our drive today, as we see other motorists with masks pulled down under their chins, or people sitting maskless on patios downtown. These people, of course, know we’re living during a pandemic. But what will it take for Abbott to get it? How many more Texans will die before he understands his tough love talk was never going to be enough?

Photo via The White House/Flickr