Schools are starting all over Texas, and the biggest political fight in the state is whether schools should be allowed to put in mask mandates to protect from the surging Delta Variant of coronavirus. Governor Greg Abbott is battling school districts tooth and nail on the subject in the name of conservative political clout for his re-election.
The facts are these.
First, the Delta Variant presents a significant danger to and from children. Unlike the initial phase of the pandemic, the Delta Variant infects and spreads easily with kids, and children’s hospitals are seeing massive intakes of serious cases in minors. Some of these are ending up in ICUs on ventilators and are already pressing capacity in the wards. Not only are their lives in danger, but they are 2.5 as likely to spread the virus. This is a significant problem considering that no vaccine has yet been approved for children under 12. Even if vaccinated, Delta has been shown to be just as contagious, though vaccinated people are far less likely to themselves become gravely ill.
Second, the science behind managing the outbreak is settled and has not changed. In addition to mass vaccination, social distancing, masking, and regular sanitization of hands and high-contact surfaces stop the spread of the virus. Checks for fevers and other COVID symptoms in indoor locations are essential to stopping outbreaks before they happen. There is no disagreement between medical authorities that this is how to fight COVID.
Abbott clearly recognizes this. The website for tours of the governor’s mansion states that masks are recommended and that visitors will be screened for fevers when they enter. The governor himself has instituted mask mandates in the past. It is simply impossible to believe that Abbott is unaware of the proper, evidence-based way to combat the ongoing pandemic.
However, the fight is not a scientific one. It’s a matter of politics. Limitations on “personal freedom” are now seen as a line in the sand in Republican politics. While the governor has not said that kids should be banned from wearing masks, he is adamant that the practice should not be enforced.
“The path forward relies on personal responsibility—not government mandates,” he says. “The State of Texas will continue to vigorously fight the temporary restraining order to protect the rights and freedoms of all Texans.”
This approach has made Abbott and the state the laughingstock of the nation and the outright enemy of Texas’ urban center leaders. News outlets from the New York Times to Esquire have loudly derided the governor for his stance on the issue, correctly pointing out that Texas and the similarly led state of Florida alone make up 40 percent of new COVID cases. The heads of the major cities, counties, and school districts have begun to revolt against the ban on mask mandates, and the matter is making its way through the courts.
Unfortunately, that is almost certainly good news for Abbott and exactly what he was hoping for. Being the enemy of mainstream news sites and liberal city leaders places him in the position of conservative martyr standing up to Big Government overreach. With arch-conservative and former Chair of the Texas GOP Allen West looking to primary Abbott in next year’s election, he desperately needs clout with the far-right base in order to hold onto his office. This is especially true as Abbott drew fire from the right in the early days of the pandemic for following medical advice and instituting lockdown procedures.