Masks and Politics

I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%. EVERYTHING. I also ended the statewide mask mandate. Tweet of Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott

The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking. President Joe Biden

The president was being unkind to Neanderthals, but Abbott’s decision to reopen Texas was certainly retrograde. It is hard to interpret Abbott’s action as anything other than a deliberate affront to Biden. As one of his first presidential acts, Biden asked all Americans to wear a mask for 100 days, criticizing Republican leaders who refused to don a mask. “What the hell is the matter with them. It’s time to grow up,” he said. 

Abbott has reason to resent the president. The governor failed miserably to protect Texas during the recent severe winter storm that left millions in the state without either electrical power or water. Texans are still reeling from the recent catastrophe: Thousands of consumers have received electrical bills totaling four figures and higher for a day’s worth of energy consumption. A cynic might suspect Abbott’s decision to reopen the state is a way to deflect attention from the after effects of the storm. As for the political relationship between the governor and the president, Abbott is aware of the speed with which the Biden administration responded to the crisis in Texas, and he understands that the president scored points during his recent trip to the state where his empathetic temperament was on display. 

Other Republican governors have done as Texas has. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves lifted officially mandated restrictions, while urging Mississippians to continue to “do the right thing” though “the government is no longer telling you what you can and cannot do.” Still others — in Iowa and Montana, for example — have stopped requiring masks in public, though they remain mandatory in 35 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

One Republican governor has extolled her refusal to take active measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem — a 2024 presidential hopeful — used her recent appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference to rail against lockdowns. She blamed the response of state governments — not the virus — for the economic downturn in 2020, claiming, “Everybody knows that almost overnight we went from a roaring economy to a tragic nationwide shutdown.” Previously, Noem bragged about her refusal to mandate mask wearing and stay-at-home orders. “So, you know,” Noem said, “that was a unique approach that for our people really worked well.” The governor’s strategy worked so well that South Dakota ended 2020 with the second-highest number of cases per capita in the country. That statistic is doubly shocking since South Dakota is overwhelmingly rural with a sparse population that should make viral transmission more difficult. But, size has no relationship to political point scoring. 

The actions of some Republican governors are contrary to the best scientific advice. It is true that the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are going down. It is also true that the Biden administration has ramped up vaccine distribution, and it is possible that all Americans who want the vaccine will have it in the next few months. That is all good news. But, the experts say, this is not the time to let our guard down. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser for COVID-19, says Americans may need to wear masks for another year. “When it goes way down, and the overwhelming majority of the people in the population are vaccinated, then I would feel comfortable in saying, ‘We need to pull back on the masks,’” Fauci said recently. 

Other experts point out that what happens in one state affects all Americans. “This is not just about the decision of one state because it affects all of us. People in Texas will get on planes and drive. The more the virus spreads there, the more chance the virus will mutate,” said Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington. “We saw how this played out this summer. These are not just the same mistakes we’re making, but the same players making them. It just leaves you speechless.”

Of course, citizens in states lifting restrictions are still free to practice vigilance. Any American can wear a mask, regardless of the wisdom or stupidity of his or her governor. Businesses can still insist that customers cover their faces though, unfortunately, enforcing such a policy might force a business’ employees to encounter hostile resistance. Some major chains — Kroger, Starbucks, and Target, for example — have declined to rollback their mask mandates. And, people can continue to social distance. The need for vigilance is still great, as new deaths from COVID-19 continue to exceed two thousand a day.  As Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, observed, Abbott’s lifting of all restrictions will lead to more deaths, adding that “when you combine telling people they don’t need to wear masks anymore with 100 percent capacity at gyms, bars, restaurants and concerts, that is the perfect recipe for community spread.”

Republicans are putting politics ahead of science because most GOP elected officials are perpetuating the politics of the past: The politics of obstruction, grievance, and resentment toward government, especially the federal government. Abbott has his particular agenda stemming from the fallout from his failed response to the recent storm. But, most Republicans subscribe to the old conservative canard that government is a force for harm, not good. How else to interpret the remark of Mississippi’s Republican governor that the end of mandated masking means “the government is no longer telling” citizens what to do? The lessons of the New Deal have been lost on the current crop of GOP leaders.

The politicization of mask wearing — which is to say, the politicization surrounding the pandemic — explains why the United States has roughly five percent of the world’s population but 20 percent of COVID-19 cases. Now that the end is in sight, with much of the public accepting mask wearing and social distancing and the Biden administration insuring that vaccines will soon be available everyone, it would be even more tragic if the same old political machinations undermine the progress so far and jeopardize the future because, after all, masks and politics should never meet.

Posted March 5, 2021