HealthcareGovernor Abbott Reverses Course from Past Statements in Implementing Statewide Mask Order

Governor Abbott's latest order is a stark diversion from his past position on local mask orders. Data shows a discrepancy between late April, when he stressed opposition to local mask mandates, and today.
July 6, 2020
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Back in late April, Governor Abbott countered Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s local mask order by emphasizing it wasn’t enforceable in accordance with his statewide order.

Hidalgo’s order could have resulted in an up to $1,000 fine — which was congruent then with half of the enforcement provisions in the governor’s orders.

At that time, Abbott told press, “We strongly recommend that everyone wear a mask. However, it is not a mandate. And we make clear that no jurisdiction can impose any type of penalty or fine.”

That statement was made regarding his then-order which included no such statewide order. Until then, he had given ample leeway to the localities for various types of restrictions that were firmer than his, so long as they were not laxer than the state’s.

Other cities like Austin, Dallas, and Port Isabel issued similar orders.

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Each was eventually rescinded after Abbott’s statement on the matter.

But last Thursday, Abbott issued his own, statewide, mask mandate, which can be enforced with an up-to $250 fine. 

The order does not apply to counties with fewer than 20 active COVID-19 cases. 

Abbott has maintained consistently that wearing a mask in public is a “best practice,” but has, until now, avoided mandating it.

After his slap-down of Harris County and other localities’ mask orders, the issue largely disappeared from much of the conversation — although many Texas Democrats continued to call for a statewide mandate.

But the issue resurfaced after Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff began pushing the envelope. Where the previous orders placed the onus and repercussions on individuals, Wolff’s placed it on businesses. Abbott stated that Wolff had figured out the secret loophole of his order.

Abbott said at the time, “We want to make sure that individual liberty is not infringed upon by government, and hence government cannot require individuals to wear masks.”

On cue, counties like Tarrant, Dallas, and others reissued mask orders modified to fit this new specification. Some places like Galveston County refused to follow suit, and the City of Colleyville even advertised its intended defiance of Tarrant County’s order.

That about-face from the governor ignited some conservatives such as Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) who likened it to a monarchical command. Various conservative state representatives also issued a formal criticism.

Abbott has been increasingly concerned about the recent rise in COVID-19 cases. On June 25, he put reopening on hold and a few days earlier emphasized his intention to “remain flexible” in addressing the recent case increases.

In a video statement released on Thursday, Abbott said, “These numbers reveal a stark reality: COVID-19 is not going away. In fact, it’s getting worse.”

Back when the governor put his foot down on mask orders, the seven-day average of new cases was relatively flat, and the seven-day average positive rate was even declining. Fast forward to now and only a few days ago did the seven-day average positive rate begin to taper off from its recent, steep incline.

This tapering, however, may reflect what has occurred in New York, Italy, and even Amarillo and be a sign that the state has reached its coronavirus peak. The climb down may be slow, but this positive rate decrease is a good sign for the days ahead.

Texas began methodically opening up in May and that, coupled with the mass protests in the last month have undoubtedly contributed to the increase. However, another factor is the drastic increase in testing the state has implemented. Back in late April, the state had only conducted, at most, 25,000 tests in a day. Now, the state is regularly above 50,000 and has even reached above 60,000.

(The first graph in each series below is based on last week’s coronavirus numbers Governor Abbott had at the time of his decision to issue a mask mandate.)

The increase in testing capacity is a good thing, as it paints a more accurate picture of the state’s situation — although, universal testing, and thus a fully accurate picture, is next-to-impossible logistically. But with that increased capacity comes, naturally, more positive case numbers, but should also come with a decline or stagnation in the positive rate. 

Another metric is hospitalizations, which have increased substantially since mid-June. However,  many hospitals have stressed their ability to cope with the increase, and the hospitalization rate was higher in late April than it is today.

A point of concern, however, has emerged near the state’s southern border as 10 of the 12 hospitals in Cameron, Hidalgo, and Starr Counties reported full capacities. One possible contributor is the 27 percent jump in border apprehensions from Mexico during May. 

Mexico’s case numbers have steadily increased over the last two months just as they have in the United States. And closer to home, Texas’ per capita positive case rate is over three times that of its southern neighbor. Mexico has recently called for stricter regulatory measures on the border to prevent further spread.

Border apprehensions in April were the lowest since the same month in 2017. 

Additionally, Austin Mayor Steve Adler has recently warned of waning hospital capacity. Sunday’s seven-day moving average for hospitalizations in the Austin/Travis County Metropolitan Area was 403. 

The Capital Area Trauma Regional Authority Council, on July 2, had a bed capacity of 3,272 with 810 of those still available. 

Regarding deaths, perhaps the most important metric, the seven-day daily death count average today is 35 compared with about 25 in late-April.

However, the seven-day average death rate is significantly lower than in late-April: 0.04 percent now compared with quadruple that back when Abbott issued that clarification to Harris County. Texas has a per capita death rate of 8.6, according to the Centers for Disease Control, one of the lower such rates in the country.

A big problem with the death statistics, however, is that delays in reporting have caused deaths to be attributed to days far later than when they actually occurred

Governor Abbott has not only backtracked entirely on his public posture on masks from two months ago, but not all of the data reflects that circumstances are more dire today. He has maintained, however, that he is keeping a close eye on the seven-day positive rate, which has gone from below six percent on April 27 to 13 percent today. 

While the jump in cases has rightfully caused alarm, two other datapoints add context to the handwringing. Hospitals are dealing sufficiently with the spike and the positive rate’s tapering off seems to indicate the state has hit its peak.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.