It’s now been about a month since the state of Texas lifted its mask mandate. To say this was controversial would be an understatement.
Critics of the move instantly forecast doom. President Biden set the tone by dubbing the decision “Neanderthal thinking” that would put both Texans and the rest of the country at risk.
Legislators in Texas and beyond joined in. Former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro called the move part of “Abbott’s desperate political games.” California governor Gavin Newsom said it was “absolutely reckless.” Former Texas congressman and Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke made the rounds on cable television, repeatedly calling the measure a “death warrant” for the state.
And the media’s coverage of Governor Greg Abbott’s decision was less than charitable. Mainstream press outlets rushed to talk to any person they could find who opposed the move: scared hospital employees, troubled retail workers, concerned man-on-the-street Texans, every expert and local official who would oppose the measure.
CNN ran a straight news headline earnestly asking “What’s behind Texas governor’s ‘Neanderthal thinking’?” And the network’s editor-at-large Chris Cillizza called the decision “head scratching, anti-science.”
But in the days and weeks since, something odd happened: The number of new coronavirus cases and deaths went down. The seven-day average of new cases in Texas in early April (3,072 as of April 7) is less than half of what it was when the policy was announced at the start of the March (7,253). The predictions of forthcoming cataclysm, confidently predicted just weeks prior, didn’t materialize.
While cases in the United States have dropped precipitously in recent weeks, not all states have seen the same results. Both New York State and Michigan are experiencing major spikes. As of early April, the seven-day average in New York is twice as high as in Texas. The number of new cases in Michigan on April 7 (9,339) was more than triple the number that same day in Texas, despite a population roughly one-third the size.
The criticism of Governor Abbott’s decision was particularly egregious because, in many cases, those offering it have handled the pandemic with worse results. Governor Newsom’s California shed about 70,000 jobs in January, and the governor is likely facing a recall. Former Minnesota senator Al Franken took to Twitter to mock Abbott’s move; a month later, his home state has a higher rate of new cases per 100,000 residents than Texas despite the former’s restrictions.
Proponents of the mask requirement have said that the only reason cases are declining is because major metropolitan areas such as Austin and Houston still require masks. But doesn’t that validate Abbott’s decision even more thoroughly? If cities can design local solutions that address the issue, why should the state have a heavy hand, too? Why punish smaller municipalities with forced policies that make sense in San Antonio but not in San Gabriel?
Many on the political left prefer to talk about lockdowns as if they are the only reasonable response to the pandemic, a simple solution that’s merely a barometer of willpower and responsibility. Just wear a mask! Avoid going outside! Must you be so selfish?! To them, Governor Abbott’s decision is childish and political, playing “own the libs” with people’s lives.
But we’ve learned along the way that this simply isn’t true. Lockdowns have enormous consequences, from mental health and youth suicide to physical health and economic devastation. Whether one side of the political aisle chooses to ignore these consequences doesn’t make them any less real. Not only has Governor Abbott’s decision not led to the promises of viral doom, but it has also (by design) addressed these overlooked problems of the pandemic as well.
What the realization of Texas’s handling of the virus over the past month should engender in all of us is a spirit of humility — a recognition that, just maybe, we don’t have all the answers.
That humility would go a long way the next time a state decides on a different path from what the experts — who haven’t quite had a perfect track record over this past year — might recommend.