DALLAS—First a horrific winter storm left millions of Texans without power, water, food, or all of the above in what critics said was the inevitable result of an absentee GOP government.
Now authorities in Austin seem determined to add a slew of COVID-19 deaths to the tally.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he planned to end the state’s mask mandate and push all businesses to fully reopen, ignoring the pleas of local officials—and the state’s slow vaccination rollout.
“It is now time to open Texas 100 percent,” Abbott said at a press conference during a Chamber of Commerce luncheon at a Lubbock restaurant. “Every business that wants to be open should be open.”
As the nation’s second-largest state, Texas may become the first domino in a series of reopenings that go against the advice of public health experts. Shortly after Abbott’s announcement on Tuesday, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a fellow Republican, announced his state would follow suit in fully reopening and rescinding mask mandates.
But the dynamic in Texas was especially remarkable given the massive toll imposed by a February winter storm that exposed a derelict power grid—and was connected to dozens of deaths in that state and nationwide.
“I watched Greg Abbott deliver that announcement live, and all I felt was rage. I was horrified,” 28-year-old Houston fast-food worker Travis Smith told The Daily Beast.
“We just experienced this horrific winter storm that killed people,” said Smith, who said he had a co-worker who had been on the brink of death from COVID-19. “And just coming out of that and to have this announcement—workers in Houston and in Texas need more protections right now. We do not need less.”
Treasure Willige, 26, was also feeling exposed in a state where mask mandates were already often ignored and vaccination remains out of reach.
“As a service-industry worker, I’m livid,” said Willage, of Dallas. “How dare Abbott open under the guise of caring about restaurants and small businesses but not giving a damn about the people having to work in them? And no clear plan for us to get vaccinated? Absolute bullshit.”
Texas reported 7,778 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University, and 212 deaths. That represents a steep decline from the virus’ peak in early January, when the seven-day case average in the state regularly broke 20,000, according to The New York Times.
However, the state’s high positive test rate—trending upward—could indicate that not enough people are being tested, according to Johns Hopkins University. Among the 50 states, only Georgia and Utah rank behind Texas in terms of the percentage of residents who’ve received at least one shot of the coronavirus vaccine, according to Times data.
And local health care professionals said the storm was still affecting the hospital system.
“I work at Memorial Hermann at the Texas Medical Center, a Level 1 trauma hospital. It’s one of two in Houston,” said Zac Vecellio, 27, a physical therapist. “And I say that specifically because our hospitals are already overwhelmed with cases, especially after the freeze, with people slipping on ice, getting in car accidents, and carbon monoxide poisoning.”
“Lifting the mask mandate and the capacity limits is going to create other superspreader events,” Vecellio added.
According to the Texas Tribune, vaccinations dipped dramatically during the winter storm last month that left millions without power for days.
Nevertheless, businesses will be allowed to reopen next Wednesday, Abbott said, adding that he would expand the state’s vaccine eligibility categories beyond seniors, health-care workers, and adults with underlying conditions.
The governor did not provide specifics on what such an expansion would look like. He said he expected the state to receive an influx of shipments of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, adding to a deployment of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine that arrived in the state on Tuesday.
While individual businesses can still choose to limit customers or require masks, Abbott said, city or county ordinances are no longer valid, potentially paving the way for mass gatherings to resume. County judges can impose restrictions, but only if their hospitalizations reach 15 percent for seven straight days, he said.
Lee Daugherty, the owner of Alexandre’s Bar in Dallas, said he’d listen to his staff and to health professionals over politicians.
“This is very reminiscent of June in 2020 when the state tried to open a month or two too early,” he said. “This unfortunately shows that Texas GOP Republicans are promoting business over health and profits over people, once again.”
Some Democratic officials had pleaded with Abbott not to reopen too early. The Houston Chronicle reports that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote to Abbott before his Tuesday press conference, urging him not to rescind the mask mandate.
“Supported by our public health professionals, we believe it would be premature and harmful to do anything to lose widespread adoption of this preventative measure,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote, according to the Chronicle.
They were just some of the many Democrats in the state warning the governor not to take such a dangerous step.
“This is a reckless decision that will cost lives,” Rep. Julián Castro (D-TX), a former San Antonio mayor and presidential candidate, wrote Tuesday on Twitter.
But it was front-line and essential workers who were the most outraged at the change when vaccination is closer than ever.
“So what we’re likely going to see is a huge influx of patients with COVID, and we’re going to have to triage them in order to not overwhelm the hospital,” Vecellio added.
He added, “We’re going to basically send people home to their death.”