Texas lawmakers began this year’s legislative session with some agitation over new rules that required that they wear face masks to limit the spread of COVID-19. In January, Republican representative Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg tossed his face covering on the House podium in disgust, denouncing the rules as an unnecessary infringement on what he and other mask opponents regard as their freedom to take whatever health risks they choose (and to impose risks on others). As the session proceeded, some lawmakers would quietly slide down their masks and wear them over their chins during dull moments. Those included Democratic representative Joe Deshotel, who on the third day of the session tested positive for COVID-19. Months later, on May 13, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that those who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear a face covering, Austin representative Donna Howard ripped off her black surgical mask and waved it in the air gleefully, as if she were at a bra-burning. Representative J. M. Lozano, a Republican and restaurant owner from Kingsville, threw his straight up in the air as if it were a graduation cap.
Despite all the grumbling and occasional outbursts at having to cover up, it wasn’t until last week that the issue of state-level mask mandates actually came to a vote in the House. On the afternoon of May 10, representatives began debate on a bill, authored by Speaker Dade Phelan’s right-hand man, Dustin Burrows of Lubbock, that would ensure that the Legislature has more authority during disasters and pandemics—and that the governor has less. Most prominently, the legislation would create a pandemic oversight committee of lawmakers to meet early in a crisis, and would require the full Legislature return to session to renew any disaster declaration by the governor that extends beyond ninety days. Other proposed provisions would ban local governments from requiring businesses—in particular, golf courses—to close, and would prevent the governor from placing any moratorium on non-elective medical procedures. Midway through debate last Monday, Republican representative Cody Vasut, a 33-year-old attorney from Angleton, brought forward an amendment to guarantee that the governor and local officials could never again issue mask mandates such as the ones Abbott and numerous county judges issued last year as COVID cases began to climb in Texas.
Vasut’s amendment followed months of agitating from Republicans, including state GOP chair Allen West, against mask mandates, which they argued infringed on their freedom. Promoting his amendment at the podium, Vasut equivocated on whether he accepted that masks help slow the spread of the virus, despite the established science that they block most large and many fine respiratory droplets and particles that can spread disease. He then argued that the Lege should decide whether to require face coverings, not the governor or county and city officials. “This doesn’t end mask mandates for all time,” said Vasut. “I just generally trust individuals to make the right choice for themselves or others without the need for an executive order.”
At this, Speaker Pro Tempore Joe Moody, a Democrat, wearing a light blue surgical mask, rolled his eyes. Having watched Republicans steamroller his party on a host of conservative issues, including an abortion ban and a measure to let Texans carry firearms without a permit, Moody thought fighting the mask amendment would be a losing effort. But he felt he had to try. Moments later, he was behind the microphone. “There is no question anymore about the help that these gave to us,” he said, holding his mask. What’s the wisdom, he asked, in waiting during a pandemic for the Lege to reconvene to debate wearing face coverings? “We have somehow decided to politicize a mask,” he said, now waving his around. “It’s beyond me. I didn’t know we could politicize basic science, but here we are.”
After a brief debate, the amendment came to a vote. Seventy-one representatives had supported the amendment, versus seventy who had opposed it—the closest vote of the session. Speaker Dade Phelan glanced at the tally, grimacing, then smiling nervously. There was a call for a verification vote to ensure lawmakers weren’t voting for their desk mates. By the end of a slow and dramatic recount, the final tally had shifted, with 71 still for yanking the governor’s masking powers, but 72 against. Eight Republicans had sided with Democrats to kill the amendment.
Each of the eight Republicans who voted against Vasut’s proposition ultimately voted in favor of Burrows’s bill as a whole. Most said they opposed the amendment because they want local elected officials to be able to manage a public health crisis the way they see fit. “It is taking ability away from my county judge, my mayors, and the local officials that are on the ground every day,” College Station representative Kyle Kacal said. “My job here is not to hobble local elected officials. It is to help them do their job better.” Others, such as Representative Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, pointed to the need for the governor to make decisions quickly in the best interest of the state.
Other Republicans who voted against the amendment expressed frustration over how the debate about mask mandates and mask wearing has become politicized.“For the life of me, I do not understand why a piece of cloth has become a symbol of freedom and liberty in this state,” said Representative Drew Darby, a title company owner from San Angelo. Perhaps none were more unequivocal than San Antonio representative Lyle Larson, who has found himself frequently stranded from his party this session and no longer caucuses with the House GOP. Early in the pandemic, Larson had been one of the first Republicans asking Abbott to issue a stay-at-home order. The son of a large-animal veterinarian, he had recalled how his father would control disease outbreaks by quarantining livestock with a virus from those animals that hadn’t caught it. The vote to take away the governor’s ability to mandate masks, he said, was an “overt political vote that was being thrown by a lot of folks who don’t believe in masks [but] do believe an anti-government dogma.”
The Burrows bill, which was referred to a Senate committee Thursday, is expected to pass in some form. Abbott has previously said he’s willing to work with the Lege to better prepare for the next pandemic, but should the bill advance to his desk, it will test whether he’s willing to curb the authority of his office to placate the anti-science and anti-government elements in his party.