On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the state's COVID-19 restrictions —including a mask mandate and limited capacity at restaurants — would be lifted in full. “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100%,” he said. “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.” The executive order will go into effect next Wednesday, at which point Texas will be completely open once again.
The announcement goes against both advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and desperate pleas from many Texans, who are still seeing an average of over 7,000 new cases and 232 reported deaths a day. Abbott said that, if a county’s hospitalizations rise over 15% of its hospitals’ capacity for seven consecutive days, judges can choose to implement their own “mitigation strategies.” But they will still not be permitted to enforce mask mandates. And he will not enforce one either.
Abbott’s decision has also received pushback from local leaders of various parties. “You don’t cut off your parachute just as you’ve slowed your descent,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, an Independent, wrote on Twitter. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, a Republican, didn’t outright criticize Abbott’s order, but warned that it was “premature” and urged him to focus on the state’s vaccine distribution before reopening.
COVID-19 numbers have been down in the U.S., but as CDC Director Rochelle Walensky pointed out, case numbers are still alarmingly high — even if they’re plateauing. We might be doing better than we were in January, but as a nation, we’re still averaging more cases and deaths than we were over the summer. “I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19,” Walensky said during a White House briefing on Monday.
The reality is this: Business owners and essential workers in Texas are afraid for their lives. “This is the second time that our state leadership has put us in a bad position by reopening too early,” Michael Fojtasek, an Austin-based chef, told the Austin American-Statesman. “We had made some progress, and now it’s all going to be walked back.”
Experts are also concerned that several new strains of the virus could throw a wrench in the goal to reach herd immunity within the next year. “At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Walensky said. And Texas is one of several states that have been affected by the newer strains: On Monday, a team of experts announced that Houston had become the first city to record instances of every major variant.
Abbott claimed that Texas “now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus” — specifically, a supply of vaccines. But aside from the fact that vaccinated people still need to mask up and follow precautions, Abbott’s decision is misguided given Texas’ uniquely dismal vaccine distribution plan. Compared to an increasing number of states that have administered at least one dose to over 20% of the population, Texas is lagging: Just 13.4% of Texans have received their first shot, making Texas the fourth-slowest state at vaccine rollout. Mississippi, which also rolled back on all regulations shortly after Abbott’s announcement, isn’t faring much better.
What is clear now is that Texas leadership — under the guidance of Gov. Abbott — is failing. Badly. In January, Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives wrote an open letter criticizing Abbott’s unclear vaccination plans. “Texans should be celebrating the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccination, but instead are frustrated that information from [the Texas Department of State Health Services] and the Governor’s office conflicts with their own conversations with vaccine providers when trying to make appointments,” wrote Rep. Vikki Goodwin.
All Texans are harmed by Abbott's negligence, but certain communities are likely to face graver consequences. According to a recent study, Black Texans are 30% more likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts; Hispanic Texans are 80% more likely. Even if Abbott had a stronger vaccine plan, his choice to fully reopen the state would sacrifice thousands of lives, and it’s undeniable which groups will be hit the hardest — especially since vaccination locations across the country are predominantly located in whiter, wealthier regions. Texas is one of the states with the highest disparities, reported NPR, and this can also be traced back to state leadership: According to the Texas Tribune, even when Dallas County tried to prioritize distribution to zip codes with mostly Black and Latinx residents, state officials threatened to cut the county’s vaccine supply altogether.
Some Texans will survive Abbott’s dangerous decision, but many won’t. Although some people are quick to blame voters in red states for our country’s embarrassing COVID-19 response, the responsibility ultimately rests with state leaders. And it’s no surprise who will bear the brunt of Abbott's failed leadership: It will be the same communities most impacted by last month’s power outages. The same communities struggling to access vaccines, forced to work in dangerous conditions, and dying at disproportionate rates. America doesn’t deserve better than Texas. Texas deserves better from America.