DALLAS—Texas let its pandemic freak flag fly on Wednesday.
After getting the green light from Gov. Greg Abbott last week, a slew of businesses here lifted all COVID-19 restrictions on Wednesday despite dire warnings from health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In McKinney, Fox News host Will Cain proclaimed “this is freedom” while standing maskless inside a restaurant. In Houston, a bar planned to host a “mask off” party, only to cancel the event after coming under intense public scrutiny. In Dallas, an Instagram account began cataloguing maskless businesses in the area, only to immediately block the author of this article and go private after being contacted for comment. In Austin, Attorney General Ken Paxton has threatened to sue the city if it does not stop enforcing a mask mandate.
Most remarkably, in Parker, Texas, a Jewish conservative group decided to host a mask-burning party in celebration of the new order. The confab featured a former Trump campaign staff member and Shelley Luther, an unsuccessful Senate aspirant who is perhaps most widely known for defying COVID-19 orders.
The event, organized by the Dallas Jewish Conservatives, drew over 100 people to a private home in Parker. Outside, a long line of maskless attendees could be seen filing through a covered driveway. A sign at the entrance read “We’re Open Party!” Just past the entrance hung a sign reading “Trump 2020.”
While waiting outside, a man spoke into his phone, presumably to his wife. “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. I don’t know why this is so shocking to you, this is a big thing,” the man said. “There are over 150 people here, they’re all good people. Everyone has money, there’s a line of Mercedes down the street,” he implored.
After the masks began to burn at the event, one of the owners of the house, Jim Langlais, approached this reporter. When asked about the event, Langlais said “the government has told us it can keep us from getting sick, and that’s bullshit... the government should have just said, there’s some shit going around, it looks like it’s pretty bad, you need to take care of yourself, and that’s it.”
When asked about his opinions on how governments in New Zealand and Australia have handled the crisis, where the number of coronavirus cases has reached zero, Langlais said “they’ve turned it into fucking concentration camps.”
Though statewide metrics for COVID appear to be trending downward, some experts believe it is still far too soon to invite businesses to operate at full capacity—and especially to ditch mask mandates, which Abbott’s order make nearly impossible at the local level. Per the governor’s orders, municipalities and counties will only be allowed to impose additional restrictions if COVID patients account for more than 15 percent of local hospitalizations for over seven days.
“If they were going to fully reopen, it would have been wise to at least leave the mask mandate in place to protect essential workers,” Kent State University epidemiologist Tara C. Smith told The Daily Beast. “Now they’re left without that in place, and I suspect any businesses that try to maintain required masking will be targeted by the anti-mask crowd. Plus, while we don’t know much about the spread of the variants throughout the state, we know that all have been identified in Houston, and they’re likely more widespread. This is a really bad idea.”
Indeed, the decision has foisted the now politicized burden of common-sense public-health precautions on to local governments, businesses, and individuals. And the results have been ugly.
On Wednesday afternoon, Attorney General Paxton—who is under federal indictment but has yet to have his day in court—threatened the city of Austin with a lawsuit for continuing to enforce health authority rules, including a mask mandate and capacity limits.
A new poll conducted by ProgressTexas indicates that the population of the state is evenly split when it comes to opinions on the rollback: 48 percent in support, 48 percent are opposed, and 4 percent undecided.
As a result of this shift in responsibility, and reflecting the split in opinion, some businesses worry they may lose customers regardless of their decision. Frontline service workers are also concerned that they may be at risk of getting sick or be forced to deal with newly emboldened anti-maskers. Some have even quit their jobs or protested as a result of the decision to end restrictions.
Many local government institutions and businesses have publicly reaffirmed their commitment to following CDC guidelines, but some have taken the opposite tack, proudly rescinding mask and capacity requirements.
As observers noted on social media and in local publications, an Eatzi’s in Dallas has been among them. A newly installed sign on their front door reads, in all capital letters: “AMERICA WAS FOUNDED ON FREEDOM OF CHOICE. MASK WEARING IS YOUR CHOICE. GOD BLESS AMERICA.”
Inside, the choice appeared fairly clear: Most employees were wearing masks, as were customers, reflecting the results of the ThinkProgress poll that suggests residents of large cities in Texas such as Dallas—where around 70 percent of the state’s population reside—disapprove of the end of safety measures by wide margins.
Other businesses have more quietly rescinded mask mandates for employees and customers alike. At Manhattan Brewing Project, a brewery based in Dallas, there were no signs posted on their doors or windows about masks or capacity restrictions. The company’s official social media has been silent on the subject. But a brief visit to the taproom made it clear that none of the employees were wearing masks.
An Instagram page, Maskless in Dallas, has begun cataloguing the businesses that have opted against requiring masks. The creator of the page, who declined to be interviewed, said they “created the page as a helpful directory people can use.” To find businesses that are lax about masks, that is.
Not unlike the recent mask burning in front of the Idaho statehouse, which drew over 100 participants, the Parker party was meant as a celebration of the mask repeal.
Benji Gershon, president and founder of the group, told The Daily Beast that the event was held to celebrate freedom, liberty, and the right to choose how they live.
Gershon also told The Daily Beast that members of the media would not be allowed to enter the event until after the guest speakers were finished. Eventually, the press was let in but told not to record video.
“We selected these speakers because they’ve been vocal about the repeal,” Gershon told The Daily Beast.
The group has hosted several events in the past, which its website says are aimed at bringing together conservative Jews and Christians in North Texas. They’ve also promoted conspiracy theories and hosted right-wing conspiracy theorists.
Last November, the group sponsored an event featuring Russ Ramsland, who has been widely criticized for promoting unfounded claims of election fraud. Just a month ago, the group sponsored an event titled “The Global Revolution & China’s War on Texas and America,” featuring Trevor Loudon, who has been described as a far-right conspiracy theorist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Media Matters, Rolling Stone, and Metro US.
At a private estate in Parker, which boasts a backyard putting course, over 100 people gathered to schmooze, drink, and burn masks together. As described by the organizers, the party featured drinks, a sushi chef, a comedian, and live music. Attendees were joined by the likes of Luther, the failed Senate candidate who came into the public eye when she was arrested for operating her salon amidst the early days of COVID-19. Luther described the reopening of the state as “miraculous” and “timely.”
In addition to Luther, the event featured self-styled public speaker and former Trump staffer Keenan Williams and Evan Sayet, who describes himself as “the nation’s leading conservative comedian.” Live entertainment was provided by former Las Vegas performer and current real-estate agent Andy Corridori.
While mask-wearing was 100 percent optional at the event, organizers stressed that hand sanitizer would be available. Only one small bottle was plainly visible.