Abbott’s move to fully reopen Texas bucks science but mollifies GOP base

By Gromer Jeffers Jr.
The Dallas Morning News/TNS

Gov. Greg Abbott is gambling that reopening Texas at full capacity and scrapping his mask mandate will not reverse the gains that have been made in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

And whatever the result, his decision will be viewed by many as an attempt to shore up his Republican base, where some leaders have criticized him for ordering mask mandates and being too slow to fully reopen the state.

The move comes as Abbott and other Republican leaders are trying to rebound from the state’s disastrous response to February’s brutal winter event that left millions without power and water.

The governor’s decision puts him at loggerheads with scientists including Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director who on Monday warned states not to ease up on the restrictions that have helped changed the trajectory of the virus. The numbers of cases, deaths and hospitalizations are all on the decline. And it comes as the nation has three vaccines that are slowly being put in the arms of Americans.

There’s still work to be done.

Last week, Texas averaged over 200 reported deaths. And though there’s hope because of the vaccines, less than 7% percent of Texans had been fully vaccinated as of the past weekend.

“With these new statistics, I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19,” Walensky said of the national numbers in a press briefing. “I understand the temptation to do this – 70,000 cases a day seems good compared to where we were just a few months ago – but we cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths.”

But Abbott is dealing with more than coronavirus case numbers. In a state that prides itself as a potent economic engine, the virus has hit businesses hard because of closures and capacity limits. In Abbott, business leaders have a sympathetic ear, though critics say his decision could have been put off a few months, when more Texans receive the vaccines and the virus continues to decline.

In Texas, health officials aren’t a dominate force in the GOP primary. Abbott is up for election in 2022, and he doesn’t want a challenger from his right blasting him for waiting too long to fully reopen Texas.

Before Tuesday’s announcement, Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West and others pushed Abbott to be more aggressive with fully reopening, pointing to states like Florida and South Dakota and an example.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem have become darlings of the GOP, a party still influenced by former President Donald Trump. While DeSantis and Noem’s political stock has risen over the past year, Abbott, who could have presidential ambitions in 2024, has been stuck in place.

If Texas doesn’t see another spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, Abbott will improve his local and national standing with Republicans, given that Texas is such a large and dynamic state.

Unfortunately, the wearing of masks has become a political issue, with some libertarians and Republicans loyal to Trump balking at such mandates.

Critics say that by repealing his mask wearing order, Abbott may put essential workers and other Texans at risk. If masks aren’t required in a bustling grocery store, social distancing or a vaccination may be the only protection available.

Abbott is taking a chance by not listening to scientists like Walensky.

Let’s hope it turns out to be worth it.