Alexandra Villarreal in Austin
Months of hostility and infighting between Texas’s Republican and Democratic leaders reached a breaking point this week, when the state sued Austin and Travis county officials who were still requiring residents to wear masks in public.
In a move decried as “reckless” around the United States, Texas ended almost all of its coronavirus-related restrictions on Wednesday, including a statewide mask mandate and capacity limits on businesses.
But, bolstered by the formidable body of evidence that shows face coverings mitigate the spread of Covid-19, local jurisdictions such as Austin and Round Rock have decided to keep their safety protocols, drawing ire from state politicians.
“I told Travis County & The City of Austin to comply with state mask law. They blew me off. So, once again, I’m dragging them to court,” the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, tweeted Thursday.
Steve Adler, Austin’s mayor, said that he and Travis county judge Andy Brown would “fight to defend and enforce our local health officials’ rules for as long as possible using all the power and tools available to us”, though it wasn’t immediately clear how they planned to ensure compliance.
“We promised to be guided by the doctors, science and data as concerns the pandemic and we do everything we can to keep that promise,” Adler said in a statement. “Wearing masks is perhaps the most important thing we can do to slow the spread of the virus.”
“We return to court March 26,” Adler tweeted. “No matter what happens then, we will continue to be guided by doctors and data. Masking works.”
At a press conference earlier this month Greg Abbott, the Texas governor, drew cheers as he announced it was time for his state to open “100%”, presenting the sudden shift in regulations as a gift to business owners and workers who have struggled because of a recession linked to the pandemic.
But when Elizabeth Dixie Patrick, executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, heard from local business owners about the policy change, they overwhelmingly expressed confusion, dismay and frustration.
“The difference between encouraging mask wearing and mandating mask wearing is about who has to tell people, ‘no, you can’t endanger other people,’” Patrick said. “To place another burden on small business owners right now, when they’re already struggling just to stay afloat, creates all of this unnecessary anxiety.”
Abbott has forced businesses into an unenviable catch-22, where owners must either go along with his no-restrictions strategy, knowingly putting staff in danger, or protect public health but “risk being harassed and attacked,” Patrick said.
“The governor’s order is emboldening the people who are feeling like they have this right to put their own comfort above the safety of their fellow citizens,” she added.
The state’s hasty return to pre-pandemic life comes even as only about 9% of Texans are fully vaccinated, and while a large swathe of the population remains ineligible for the jab. It marks yet another chapter in a seemingly endless saga where state and local officials battle it out, handicapping Texas’s coronavirus response in the process.
During the summer, when Texas experienced a devastating spike in coronavirus cases, counties and cities trying desperately to enact and enforce regulations were thwarted by the state. Then, in the winter, Paxton sued almost immediately after Austin announced new restrictions trying to prevent further damage during another surge around the New Year’s holiday.
Amid a series of court battles, brash reopenings and mask-related controversies, Texans have suffered more than 2.3 million confirmed infections and over 45,000 deaths from Covid-19.
When Abbott announced his decision to sunset coronavirus-related protections earlier this month, other leaders in Texas’s large cities expressed fervent opposition, including Oscar Leeser, El Paso’s mayor, who recounted how his brother was infected and died from the virus after visiting their ailing mother without a face mask.
“I share this very personal story not to seek sympathy,” he wrote, but “as someone who is deeply aware of the power and protection that wearing a face mask can provide an individual.”