Greg Abbott celebrated Texas Independence Day on Tuesday at Montelongo’s Mexican Restaurant in Lubbock. On a date that it’s hard to imagine was selected by coincidence, the governor announced that all statewide COVID-19 restrictions would soon end. Businesses of any kind—bars, restaurants, movie theaters, petting zoos, bowling alleys, indoor water parks, etc.—that previously faced various occupancy limits can resume serving 100 percent of their customers, effective March 10. Texans will be free to strut around with their chins out that day too, with the statewide mandate on wearing masks in public also lifted.
At his press conference this afternoon, Abbott touted what he views as the great successes Texas has achieved in fighting the coronavirus. While he stopped short of displaying a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind himself, and urged everyone to take “personal responsibility” in the months to come, his tone—the same day that 271 more Texans were reported dead of the disease—was unmistakably triumphant.
After more than 2.6 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and more than 43,000 killed by the virus, there are at last some clearly encouraging signs in the data tracking the pandemic’s course in the state. The number of Texans hospitalized with the disease is at its lowest point since late October. The rate of tests coming back positive has similarly dipped back to the level it was at last fall. Active cases are on the decline. Perhaps most critically, the vaccine rollout—which some experts worried would be derailed after the winter storm—has resumed with alacrity, mitigating concerns that we’d suffer dramatic consequences from a lost week. Some of the data could be skewed by that same storm disruption—testing, after all, is at less than half the capacity it was before—but all of the metrics hold promise. After twelve months of grief, frustration, loneliness, and hardship brought on by the pandemic for so many, much better days are seemingly on the way
Which is why Abbott’s abrupt halt to statewide mitigation efforts seems so oddly timed. As the governor himself noted, while conditions are improving, the pandemic isn’t over yet. Fewer hospitalizations are a relief to those who worried our health-care system would be overwhelmed, but we’ve only returned to the point we were at last October, at the start of a devastating renewed surge of infections and deaths. The testing positivity rate, now just under 10 percent, is a marked improvement from the dark days of early January, when more than 20 percent of tests came back positive—but it’s still well short of the rate of 5 percent or lower recommended by the World Health Organization. Vaccine supplies are improving rapidly, buttressed by the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of a third COVID vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson, this week—but 87 percent of Texans, at the time of Abbott’s announcement, had yet to receive even a single dose of the two-shot Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.
Throughout the pandemic, those who see public health measures as a debate between “open the economy” and “stop the virus” have argued that we can’t upend our lives forever. That argument might have been compelling in the earliest days of lockdown, when it wasn’t at all clear when the vaccine cavalry would come. But now the idea that public health experts might expect restrictions to drag on “forever” is off the table. Instead, to achieve the protections of herd immunity even in the most populous metro in the state, Dallas–Fort Worth, we’re talking more like June. Nobody wants to live with masks and social distancing forever. As Lauren Ancel-Meyers of the University of Texas’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium told me, “Business and school closures have big social and economic costs. We don’t want to have to do them for very long. We want to go back to school, back to work, back to our lives, as things feel safer.” It’s just a question of when that should be. Abbott noted that it’s likely that every Texan who wants a vaccine will have access to one before the end of the spring. So it’s unclear what, precisely, put him in such a big hurry to abandon all public safety measures on March 2, instead of waiting another month or so for the data to demonstrate that we’ve slowed the spread even further.
Still, this isn’t the first time the governor has told Texans that fighting the coronavirus requires “personal responsibility,” rather than guidance from state leaders. Way back last May—when 40,000 Texans who’ve since died of COVID-19 were still alive—Abbott announced “phase two reopening,” based on a handful of encouraging early metrics. That summer, of course, Texas suffered a pandemic wave, forcing Abbott to institute the mask mandate that he rescinded Tuesday.
Local leaders have responded to Abbott’s new order, variously, with consternation or support. In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo very politely urged Abbott to reconsider lifting the mask mandate, thanking him for his leadership and calling masks “a minor discomfort compared to the alternative.” Betsy Price, the Republican mayor of Fort Worth, where a local mask ordinance had been set to be renewed, pivoted to echo Abbott’s call for “personal responsibility” instead, though she subsequently called the governor’s order “premature.” Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough, who’d butted heads with Abbott over his initial order, told reporters he was “very pleased” by the new order, while outspoken Austin City Council member Greg Casar decried Abbott’s “cowardice” on Twitter.
Politics aside, we don’t know yet whether the pattern so far of advancing disease, followed by increased public safety measures, followed by easing of restrictions, followed by a still larger outbreak, will hold this spring. It’s possible, as Abbott asserted, that the course of the pandemic has been truly altered—by vaccinations and by recently approved pharmaceutical interventions like monoclonal antibodies, and our improved understanding of drugs like remdesivir. We’ll have a better sense of that in the coming weeks and months. Right now, we just don’t know yet.
One thing Texans have gotten more experience with over the past year, though, is managing uncertainty. Barring certain nightmare scenarios—such as further mutations of the virus that undercut the immunity granted by vaccines—the pandemic will still come to something resembling a conclusion at some point in 2021. At that point, business restrictions, mask mandates, and the other disruptions caused by COVID-19 will no longer be necessary. The question in the meantime is how many more Texans will face long-term illness, watch their loved ones suffer, or lose their lives. Once more, the governor’s reopening decisions have opted for accepting a greater risk of seeing the trajectory of those numbers rise, in the interest of getting the state back to business.