The Governor’s Gamble

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Governor Abbott’s decision to end the mask mandate and “open Texas 100%” is a bold and risky move.  It may prove to accelerate Texas’s economic recovery, but it may also endanger his re-election prospects and—far more importantly—prolong the Covid-19 pandemic in Texas.

In explaining his decision, Governor Abbott argued that after a year of coping with the pandemic, Texans know the value of wearing masks, and can be counted on to do so without being so ordered by the state.  Therefore, the mandate is no longer necessary.

Discussion on this morning’s local talk shows—”Lone Star Politics” and “Inside Texas Politics”—focused on another reason for lifting the mask mandate:  It’s deeply unpopular among Texas’s conservative Republicans—the voters most likely to go to the polls in next March’s Republican primary to decide whether to renominate or replace Governor Abbott.  Texas lawmakers have already introduced bills to limit the Governor’s emergency powers as well as lift the mask mandate.  Lifting the mandate on his own may enhance his popularity with conservatives and increase his chances for renomination, while retaining the mandate might inspire a primary challenge.  

And the reason for wanting to speed up Texas’s economic recovery, while not discussed on the morning talk shows, is even more obvious.  The single most important factor determining a sitting governor’s chances for winning re-election in a general election is usually the state of his state’s economy.  The more quickly the Texas economy recovers, the more certain becomes the Governor’s re-election.

But in making his decision, Governor Abbott has also set several potential traps for both himself and the state as a whole. 

One such trap is the possible reaction of those who don’t want to wear masks to businesses whose owners insist that their employees and customers continue to do so.  Many business owners will still enforce their own mask mandates.  They want to protect themselves and their employees from catching the virus from customers.   And they may well fear lawsuits from customers who might claim they got ill because of the absence of a mask mandate in a particular business.

No doubt most who oppose a government-imposed mask mandate also recognize that the right not to wear a mask does not negate the right to wear a mask if one chooses.  “Do whatever makes you feel safe,” said one of my correspondents on the subject. Moreover, they recognize that the owner of a private business has the right to impose a mask mandate if he chooses.  Customers can either comply, or they can go elsewhere.

But today’s Washington Post has published a story about a disturbing trend:  The harassment of restaurants in Houston requiring the wearing of masks by those who don’t want to wear them.  The forms of harassment include shouting matches with restaurant employees trying to enforce mask mandates, the use of social media to savage the restaurants, and the threat to call on Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to conduct raids in search of illegal immigrants working at the restaurants.

Of course, such stories have been reported before over the past year.  But the danger here is that with the state ending the official mask mandate, but with a majority of Texas restaurants indicating that some sort of private mask mandate will be retained for the foreseeable future anyway, confusion and misunderstandings may lead to more confrontations and more violence, or so Houston law enforcement officials believe.  Obviously such confrontations will cause a deterioration in both public order and economic vitality.

A second—and even worse—trap is a possible spike in coronavirus casualties.  At this time both infection rates and mortality rates are falling, and vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are becoming more available.  One can only hope that the trends will continue downward as more and more Texans get vaccinated.  Governor Abbott is absolutely correct in saying that if the pandemic is to be defeated, it will be through successful vaccination programs, and he is to be applauded for seeking more vaccines for Texans.

But what if the Governor’s lifting of the mask mandate was “premature,” as Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, a good Republican, suggested.  What if the wearing of masks is as effective in dampening the pandemic as their supporters claim, and that their discard will cause spikes in infection and mortality rates before the vaccines take hold?  A return to economic stagnation and spiraling infection and mortality rates helps nobody.  Governor Abbott’s possible re-election defeat will best be seen as collateral damage to the greater damage done by the pandemic’s resurgence.

Under the circumstances Governor Abbott’s best course of action is to protect those who choose to maintain their own private mask mandates, to continue to push for the delivery and injection of more vaccines, and, as a last resort, reinstitute the executive orders he’s lifted should there be a possible resurgence of the pandemic.  Whatever the fate that befalls him in next year’s elections, these courses of action will be best for Texas a whole.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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