I was getting my first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at the Bayou City Event Center in Houston when the news broke that Governor Greg Abbott is lifting Texas’ mask mandate — even as health officials warn not to ease restrictions aimed at stemming the pandemic. No one at the vaccination site removed their mask, fortunately. But we immediately started discussing the decision — and we were all appalled.
Abbott’s announcement may have been cheered by some in the business community, but make no mistake: those of us who want to see a thriving economic climate are far from universally on his side. Instead, we recognize that to save lives and build a strong long-term future we have to put science first. And the science does not back up his decision.
The number of Covid-19 cases increased in Texas in the two weeks leading up to Abbott’s announcement, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, less than 8% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to the university’s running tally. To make matters worse, a new study shows that Houston — Texas’ most populous city — is the first US city to detect all the major Covid-19 strains among patients.
Abbott’s move came on Texas Independence Day, when leaders like to flex their muscles and show that they’ll make their own decisions regardless of a national consensus. But it also came at a time when Abbott is pushing President Joe Biden for more federal support following the collapse of Texas’ energy system amid a cold snap — a disaster that resulted from planning failures by those who oversee Texas’ independent energy grid and that left at least 26 people dead.
In a larger sense, there’s a major irony in Abbott simultaneously celebrating Texas’ independence and bucking science: science made Texas great.
Texas science and data fueled America’s rise
“Houston, we have a problem.” This quotation, though slightly inaccurate (it was actually “Houston, we’ve had a problem”) is one of the first things that comes to mind when people think of the history of the US space program. Texas’ role in NASA and sending astronauts to the moon is just one of many scientific achievements. Another is the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, ranked this year as the top comprehensive cancer center in the country by US News and World Report.
Scientists, meanwhile, have helped Texas become a leader in renewable energy. Texas leads the nation in wind-generated power, and produced more energy from wind and solar combined than from coal, according to 2020 data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
People across the energy sector, long a major driver of the state’s economy, know that risk mitigation is crucial. Abbott’s decision flies in the face of both safety and long-term economic success.
It also comes down like a sledgehammer on a state that’s already exhausted from multiple catastrophes. Just like so many others in Texas, my family and I lost our home, and I lost my business, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The Army Corps of Engineers released dams to prevent flooding in other parts of the metropolitan area, but the move flooded thousands of homes in our area. It was a disastrous lack of planning (that time by the federal government).
Mourning families call for mask-wearing
In the big picture, lifting a mask mandate while increasing numbers of vaccines are on their way in the coming months makes no sense. But ultimately, the big picture doesn’t make for the most powerful argument; that comes from the individual tragedies faced by families.
A powerful, poignant obituary written by Stacey Nagy for her husband David Nagy of East Texas last year summarized it beautifully. “Family members believe David’s death was needless. They blame his death and the deaths of all the other innocent people, on Trump, Abbott and all the other politicians who did not take this pandemic seriously and were more concerned with their popularity and votes than lives. Also to blame are the many ignorant, self-centered and selfish people who refused to follow the advice of the medical professionals, believing their ‘right’ not to wear a mask was more important than killing innocent people.”
Similar stories echo across the country. In December, the family of Kansas farmer and veterinarian Marvin J. Farr lamented that while he grew up at a time when people were rationing essential supplies and sending their children to fight in wars, “He died in a world where many of his fellow Americans refuse to wear a piece of cloth on their face to protect one another.” And the “science that guided his professional life has been disparaged and abandoned by so many of the same people who depended on his knowledge to care for their animals and to raise their food.”
What Texans, and people everywhere, need from our leaders now is a good example. Put science first. Put life-saving measures first. Take the long view, rather than worrying about short-term political repercussions among a base of supporters. That’s how we’ll get through this together.