Twenty-four hours ago:
“We have the ability to stop a potential fourth surge of cases in this country.” — CDC Director Rochelle Walensky pic.twitter.com/uVWtMBgLJn
— The Recount (@therecount) March 1, 2021
Fauci made the same point on Sunday. Although cases have dropped sharply since January, the decline stalled last week. We’re steady at 50,000-70,000 cases nationally, which is enough to seed another major outbreak if people ease off social distancing again. Hang tight for one more month, he and Walensky advised, as we have a huge new supply of vaccines coming that’ll immunize many millions of Americans in March.
No dice, said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this afternoon. The Lone Star State is now open for business — if it wants to be, of course.
“Texas is in a far better position now than when I issued my last executive order back in October,” Abbott said, adding that businesses can still limit their capacity or implement additional safety measures if they choose to do so. “It is their business, and they get to choose to operate their business the way they want to. At this time, however, people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate…
Most Texas businesses, including restaurants, have had to keep their occupancy rates at 75%. Businesses in areas where coronavirus patients make up more than 15% of available beds must reduce occupancy to 50%. Bars in those areas must close and elective procedures must halt…
Abbott’s new order will allow all businesses to expand their occupancy rates to 100%. However, county officials may use “covid mitigation strategies” if coronavirus hospitalizations rise above 15% of an area’s total bed capacity for seven straight days, Abbott said.
For all the hype about today’s announcement, the changes on the ground are actually minor. Most commercial activities are already at 75 percent capacity, they can remain at that level if they so desire, and local officials have leeway to tighten things up if cases start to surge again. You’re no longer obligated to wear a mask either, but most people will obviously continue to do so. Which makes me wonder: Did Abbott really want a substantive change of policy or just a splashy headline to distract constituents from the state’s power-grid disaster amid the deep freeze of a few weeks ago?
Gov. Abbott (R-TX) announces all businesses in the state can reopen and ends the statewide mask mandate. pic.twitter.com/3RyGdMVXvD
— The Recount (@therecount) March 2, 2021
Submitted for your approval, a few facts about Texas’s epidemic since the mask mandate took effect on July 2 of last year. Fact one: Average daily cases are about as high now as they were at the time — and there are more contagious variants circulating now, which is why Walensky and Fauci are worried.
The seven-day average on July 2, 2020, was 7,375. The seven-day average yesterday was 7,121. Fact two: Daily deaths are higher now than they were when the mask mandate took effect. A lot higher.
On July 2, 2020, the seven-day average of deaths was 40 per day. Yesterday it was 231. Even allowing for the fact that deaths are a lagging indicator and should decline for another few weeks even as cases plateau (or rise), it’s unlikely that they’ll drop as far as 40 per day. In fact, not since July 4 of last year has the daily death count been that low. Abbott’s easing off a restriction at a moment when the virus is claiming more lives than it did when he put that restriction in place.
Fact three: Texas isn’t doing great with vaccinations relative to other states. Lately that’s due in part to the disruption the state suffered from its week of bitter cold, which paralyzed everything. But even before then, it was a comparatively poor performer. Measured by the percentage of the population that’s received at least one dose, Texas is the third-worst state in the country. Only Utah and Georgia (and D.C.) have vaccinated a smaller share. The new rules are not, in other words, a response to some huge Israel-style surge in immunizations in which herd immunity might reasonably be expected to set in soon, making reopening a safe bet. They’re closer to the opposite of that. Abbott seems to have decided that he’s tired of waiting as vaccinations slo-o-owly progress, no matter what the data might say.
I’ll give him credit for showing some political courage with his decision, though. If Texas sees a new surge, experts are going to feed him loads of sh*t for it:
Not what I'd recommend
Infections are still high
Variants of concern are spreading
And TX is 48th among states in vaccinations
With more vaccines on the way, doing this in a couple of months would be far more reasonable
Doing it now? Big risk with people's lives https://t.co/pXPDL3MzQA
— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) March 2, 2021
I know someone else who’ll feed him sh*t for it too, although I don’t think Abbott’s worried about him. According to a poll published yesterday, he’s at 58 percent approval — exactly the same as before Texas’s power crisis.