Things just got real: Statewide mask mandate imposed in ... Texas

This feels only slightly less shocking and transgressive than watching the state turn blue on election night would.

Which, at the rate we’re going, is a possibility. That’s part of why Greg Abbott went all-in on masks, I assume. If the outbreak continues to spiral in Texas, with the ruling party eventually blamed for not doing everything it could to stem the tide, there’ll be political consequences, not just human consequences. As one Twitter pal put it, “Abbott’s fascinating because he’s as red-meat conservative as anyone but has to govern a large, complex state that’s rapidly becoming less Republican.”

Still, a mask mandate in the beating heart of red-state America? In Alamo country?

You can imagine Abbott’s response. “The virus is about to breach the walls. You know how the Alamo ended, right?”

The order requires Texans living in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while inside a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. But it provides several exceptions, including children who are younger than 10 years old, people who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, people who are eating or drinking and people who are exercising outdoors.

Abbott’s order specifies at least one group of people is not excepted from the order: “any person attending a protest or demonstration” with over 10 people who cannot socially distance

First-time offenders of the order will receive a written or verbal warning. Those who violate the order a second time will receive a fine of up to $250. Every subsequent violation is punishable also by a fine of up to $250. The order specifics that no one can get jail time for a violation.

Tantrums are already being thrown on social media in reaction to this very slight, potentially life-saving inconvenience. To give you a sense of how dramatic Abbott’s change of heart is, though, read the last sentence of this paragraph:

That’s from his executive order in late April. He banned local governments from imposing mask mandates. Now he’s imposing one of his own. There’s no jail time for violations, as the excerpt above notes, but it’s a testament to how worrisome Texas’s outbreak has become that he’d be willing to reverse himself quite this starkly:

At last check hospitals in Houston were starting to transfer patients to other cities in order to cope with local demand for treatment. Last week Austin had the highest positivity rate of any metro area in the entire country. Not great.

Abbott frames his decision in the clip below in a smart way. It’s not that we’re mandating masks just to hold down the spread, he says, as that argument won’t appeal to a certain segment of the population that doesn’t seem to care how many infections there are. Rather, we’re mandating masks so that the economy can stay open. That’s how Trump should have formulated this issue months ago: Practice good pandemic hygiene, which means masks and diligent social distancing, and we don’t need to lock down. As it is, Republicans from Abbott to Mitch McConnell to even Fox News are trying to play catch-up, now pushing mask-wearing as a “break glass in case of emergency” option as the recent spread pushes southern states and California to the brink of having to issue new economy-killing stay-at-home orders. Hopefully it works, but we’re putting a lot of faith in the possibility. Assuming Texans really do comply with this order en masse (or that police really do aggressively enforce), how dramatic a reversal can we expect from widespread mask-wearing? And how soon? There’s a lot riding on the outcome of this social experiment: Lives, hospital capacity, the economic recovery, and maybe the presidential election.