AUSTIN, Texas – The dilemma looked familiar. A prominent, ambitious red state governor who had opposed mask mandates and other aggressive measures to combat the spread of Covid-19 suddenly found himself on the defensive as cases and hospital stays in his state soared.
First it was Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. Now it is Texas Governor Greg Abbott who is facing scathing criticism as Austin intensive care beds have shrunk to single digits and San Antonio health officials have rated the risk level just one step below critical. But Mr. Abbott remains firm in his refusal to give a statewide mandate while banning local officials in their own communities.
The fear and frustration comes as schools in the nation’s second most populous state stand ready to reopen, raising concerns about further spread of the virus.
“The governor has shown a callous disregard for life and safety, despite clear medical instructions, and is risking the safety of our children and the recovery of our economy,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Mr Abbott said he was focused on personal responsibility but failed to address the specifics of the state’s Covid crisis.
“Governor Abbott has made it clear that we must rely on personal responsibility, not government mandates,” the statement said. “Every Texan has the right to decide for himself and his children whether to wear masks, open his shops or get vaccinated.”
It added that while all eligible Texans have been urged to get vaccinated, the vaccine itself “will always remain voluntary and will never be coerced in Texas”.
Despite his current tough line, Mr. Abbott has different approaches to the pandemic.
His previous statewide restrictions, enacted last March, included a masked mandate, as well as limiting social gatherings to 10 people and closing some businesses such as gyms. Those that stayed open had limited capacity.
The state lifted mandates last March, citing the availability of vaccines and its own forecast that seven million people in the state would be vaccinated by mid-March.
But in the months since then, when the Delta variant tore up bullish forecasts across the country, coronavirus cases have risen steadily until the state hit its current status: an average of more than 12,000 new cases per day, a 134 percent increase within the past two weeks. and nearly 8,000 hospital admissions, according to a New York Times database. Only 44 percent of the state’s residents are fully vaccinated, which is well below the national average of 50 percent.
“In the past few weeks, Texas has been at the forefront of resurgence,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, professor at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the university’s Covid-19 model consortium.
The number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations across the state will rise to well over 15,000 by the end of August, according to the university model.
In response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention undoing their previous recommendation that the fully vaccinated should not wear a mask indoors in high-risk areas, Mr Abbott doubled in the opposite direction last month. It issued an executive order banning local governments and state agencies from prescribing vaccines and upholding previous decisions to discourage local officials from prescribing masks.
The governor also confirmed schools could not make masking compulsory for students, a move some public health experts believe could lead to a further surge in cases.
“It is very likely that if students and parents show up on day 1 with coronavirus, this could make it worse,” Ms. Meyers said. “The current state law prohibits schools from requiring face masks, and so our hands are tied at the local level within the schools as to what we can do.”
The issue is both a public health issue and a political issue for Mr Abbott.
Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, said Mr Abbott had to walk a challenging political path during the pandemic. The governor’s initial restrictions on business and other aspects of daily life at the start of the pandemic sparked backlash among grassroots Conservatives, who oppose government interference and also form the core of the Republican primary electorate.
Mr Abbott was able to restore much of that support after lifting restrictions when Covid wore off, Professor Jones said, but would risk causing friction with Republican primary voters again if he re-imposed the regulations.
“It’s definitely headed for the Republican primary,” he said of the governor’s strategy, noting that Mr Abbott’s goal is to win the 2022 Republican primary by an overwhelming majority against two Conservative challengers – former State Senator Don Huffines and the former leader of the Republican Party, Allen West.
James Riddlesperger, professor of political science at Texas Christian University at Fort Worth, said Mr. Abbott, who, like Mr. DeSantis, is said to have his own ambitions as president, sees something similar.
“This is a very risky and rewarding strategy that he and other national Republican leaders are pursuing who simply do not believe the Covid crisis will cause the number of deaths that many health professionals are suggesting,” he said.
Understand the state of vaccine mandates in the United States
In Austin, local health officials approved recommendations including encouraging fully vaccinated individuals to wear a mask and encouraging partially and fully unvaccinated individuals to get fully vaccinated, stay at home, and avoid gatherings unless an outing is inevitable. However, under Mr Abbott’s ban on mask and vaccine mandates, local officials have no enforceability and can only recommend compliance.
In San Antonio, the virus is also calling for medical facilities. The seven-day average of new cases there is 1,346, with 1,002 Covid patients being hospitalized and, according to the city, 273 of them have ventilators.
“I’d say we’re in a pretty dark place,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “The numbers in our hospitals are approaching the highest we’ve seen in the entire pandemic.”
Mr. Adler and mayors in other democratic metropolitan areas say the policies that Mr. Abbott and other Republican leaders are pursuing against mandates are stifling local authorities’ powers to deal with the virus.
“He thought that people have a right not to get vaccinated,” said Adler. “But I don’t think people have a right to endanger the rest of the community.”
Some officials are considering opposing Mr. Abbott’s orders. Nelson Wolff, the judge for the Bexar district, which also includes San Antonio, said he was considering introducing a mask mandate for the district’s 5,000 employees this week.
Mr. Wolff and the district officers are looking for legal formalities that will enable them to implement such a mandate contrary to Mr. Abbott’s policy.
In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner has already circumvented the governor’s ban on masking requirements by ordering city workers to wear face covering in city buildings and when they are around other people and are not socially distant.
The mayor took the measure last week after a two-week spike in the number of city workers, including police and fire departments, with Covid.
“When I saw the exponential increase in the incidence of illness among city employees, there is no way I can just watch and at least order the measures that we know will work,” Turner said on Sunday. “I know what this virus can do.”