Didn’t see this coming, especially after the burst of support Greg Abbott got from righties for lifting Texas’s mask mandate and ending capacity limits on businesses amid a torrent of criticism from Democrats and experts. Yesterday it came out that Abbott never consulted with three of the four members of his team of medical advisors before making his move, and the one he did speak with wouldn’t frankly condone the idea when asked afterward. (One of the three who didn’t speak to Abbott later said, “I don’t think this is the right time [to ease restrictions]… Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.”) Was his decision truly based on trends in cases and hospitalizations or was it a political calculation?
There’s other circumstantial evidence that there was a political angle to it. Texas’s move was announced at around the same time as Mississippi’s decision to rescind its own mask mandate:
The back-to-back announcements from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday evening surprised and angered Biden officials who have gone to lengths in recent weeks to court governors on both sides of the aisle, and consciously avoided criticizing individual states over early slowdowns in vaccine distribution…
Another senior administration health official told POLITICO that the White House believed the Texas and Mississippi announcements — posted on Twitter within 30 minutes of each other — were a “coordinated effort” by Republican governors, and that it expected to see more in the coming days…
Mask requirements in seven other states — six led by GOP governors — are due to expire before the end of the month, in what could quickly become a political litmus test.
That seems plausible. Coordinated red-state resistance to the White House as the winter epidemic eases would be a predictable turn in the culture war over masks and pandemic restrictions. It looked for a moment like we were headed for a reprise of last spring, when red states led by Trump moved quickly to reopen after the initial lockdowns while blue states kept their feet on the brake. Presumably there’d be a cascade of announcements over the course of this month from Republican governors about restrictions being lifted as Biden and his medical advisors spat and cursed and demanded more prudence as they’re scrambling to ramp up vaccinations. Fox News would cheerlead the defiance, the rest of the media would lament it — you know how this script goes.
But this afternoon brought a surprise. The mask mandate will remain in effect for another month … in Alabama:
Following the recommendations of medical officials, [Gov. Kay] Ivey said she will keep the mask order set to expire Friday in place until April 9. The Republican governor said before lifting the order that she wants to get past Easter and get as much vaccine distributed as possible.
“The bottom line is we have kept the mask mandate in place for more than a generous period of time because it has helped,” Ivey said at a news conference.
Medical officials welcomed Ivey’s decision after recommending an extension, arguing that easing restrictions before more people were vaccinated could reverse recent improvements. Alabama’s rolling seven-day average of daily cases has dropped from 3,000 in early January to below 1,000 and hospitalizations are at their lowest point since summer.
“This is very good news. This gives us a month to vaccinate more people and to get a better handle on the role of the UK variant,” said Dr. Don Williamson, the former state health officer who now heads the Alabama Hospital Association.
Huh. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice was also asked about lifting his mask mandate in an interview with CNN this afternoon. His state has done superbly well with vaccinations, clocking in at 11th out of 50 states in first doses administered and third out of 50 in second doses administered and having finished vaccinations at nursing homes before the end of January(!). If anyone might be prepared to celebrate that achievement with a little more freedom, you would think Trump country would. But Justice said no. What’s the rush in getting rid of a mask mandate if it can help save lives while vaccinations proceed, he asked CNN?
"If we continue to vaccinate more and more and more, we'll get rid of the mask. But I don't know really what the big rush to get rid of the mask is because these masks have saved a lot, a lot of lives," West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice says as states start lifting mask mandates pic.twitter.com/WJoVRRLaDs
— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) March 4, 2021
So maybe there won’t be a “red wave” of restrictions lifting after all. Maybe the drumbeat of criticism from this guy and Rochelle Walensky over the last 48 hours, following Texas’s and Mississippi’s easing of restrictions, has changed the political calculus:
Dr. Anthony Fauci on Texas: "It just is inexplicable why you would want to pull back now." pic.twitter.com/57jMQ1xpIx
— The Hill (@thehill) March 4, 2021
Politicians tend to be risk-averse. The risk-averse play right now for a governor is to stick with the status quo for another month as the vaccine supply ramps up, protecting yourself from any blame in case backing off of mask rules and social-distancing regulations is followed by a new spike in cases and deaths (possibly caused by a vaccine-resistant variant, possibly not). You can revisit this debate in April after many thousands more people in your state have been safely immunized. As the weather turns warmer and the population that’s received two shots expands, the logic of strict capacity limits on businesses and mask mandates will weaken.
The most interesting wrinkle in the saga of Texas and Mississippi versus West Virginia is their relative positivity rates. Politico points to a FEMA briefing document that circulated last week in the White House listing four states in the “red zone” of greater than 10 percent positivity. Those four: New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and … Texas and Mississippi. The latter two are still above 10 percent positivity today:
That’s 12.3 percent for Texas and 14.0 percent for Mississippi. (Ignore the weird dips each state just experienced, as those were doubtless related to reduced testing during the deep freeze of February.) As for Alabama and West Virginia, it’s night and day:
Alabama is at 19.1 percent while West Virginia stands at a measly 3.2. The positivity rate for the U.S. as a whole is 4.2 percent, meaning that the two states that just ditched their mask mandates happen to be doing considerably worse than the country at large right now. There’s a weird logic to that. The lesson learned in Texas and Mississippi may be that mask mandates don’t work; if they did, their positivity rates wouldn’t be so high, right? (Well, not really. If someone’s badly injured in a car accident but survives, did the seat-belt law that required him to fasten his belt help or not?) Conversely, the relatively low rate in West Virginia may have convinced Jim Justice that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The mandate is working there — or at least, one can see how it might be — so he’s sticking with the plan. He’ll have a harder decision to make next month after several more weeks of vaccination progress.
Update: Ah geez. I had a major brain fart and mixed up Alabama with Arkansas. The post has been fixed now.