AUSTIN, Texas — The dilemma sounded familiar. A prominent, ambitious red-state governor, who had staked out a firm position opposed to mask mandates and other aggressive measures to combat the spread of Covid-19, suddenly found himself on the defensive as cases and hospitalizations soared in his state.
First, it was Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Now it is Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who is facing withering criticism as I.C.U. beds have dwindled to the single digits in Austin and health officials in San Antonio have labeled its risk level just a step below critical. But Mr. Abbott remains firm in his refusal to enact any statewide mandate while he prohibits local officials from doing so in their own communities.
The fear and frustration comes as schools are prepared to reopen in the nation’s second most populous state, raising worries about further spread of the virus.
“The governor has shown a callous disregard for life and safety in defiance of clear medical guidance and is risking the safety of our children and the recovery of our economy,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio said.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Mr. Abbott said he is focusing on personal responsibility, but she did not address the specifics of the state’s Covid crisis.
“Governor Abbott has been clear that we must rely on personal responsibility, not government mandates,” the statement said. “Every Texan has a right to choose for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, or get vaccinated.”
It added that while all eligible Texans were urged to get vaccinated, the vaccine itself “will always remain voluntary and never forced in Texas.”
Despite his current hard line, Mr. Abbott has had varied approaches to the pandemic.
His previous statewide restrictions, which he began enacting in March of last year, included limiting social gatherings to 10 people and closing some businesses such as gyms. Those that remained open operated at a limited capacity. Last July, as cases surged across the state, he enacted a mask mandate.
The state lifted the mandates this past March, citing the presence of vaccines and its own projection that seven million people in the state would receive a shot by mid-March.
But in the months since, with the Delta variant ripping apart optimistic projections around the country, coronavirus cases steadily climbed until the state reached its current status: more than 12,000 new cases a day on average, a 134 percent increase within the last two weeks, and nearly 8,000 hospitalizations, according to a New York Times database. Only 44 percent of the state’s residents are fully vaccinated, which is well below the national average of 50 percent.
“Over the last few weeks, Texas has been in the leading edge of the resurgence,” Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the director of the university’s Covid-19 model consortium, said.
The number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations across the state is projected to climb to well over 15,000 by the end of August, according to the university model.
Last month, in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversing its previous recommendation that the fully vaccinated did not need to wear a mask indoors in high-risk areas, Mr. Abbott doubled down in the opposite direction. He issued an executive order that prohibited local governments and state agencies from mandating vaccines, and reaffirmed previous decisions to prohibit local officials from mandating masks.
The governor also affirmed that schools could not enact mask mandates for students, a move that some public health experts think could lead to another surge in cases.
“It’s very likely that, if students and parents show up on Day 1 with coronavirus, it could exacerbate this,” Ms. Meyers said. “The current state law precludes schools from requiring face masks, and so hands are sort of tied at the local levels within schools with what we can do.”
The issue is both a public health problem and a political problem for Mr. Abbott.
Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, said Mr. Abbott has had to walk a challenging political path throughout the pandemic. The governor’s initial restrictions on business and other aspects of daily life early in the pandemic caused a backlash among grass-roots conservatives who resent government interference and who also form the core of the Republican primary electorate.
Mr. Abbott was able to rebuild much of that support after lifting restrictions when Covid abated, Professor Jones said, but would risk once again causing friction with Republican primary voters if he reimposed regulations.
“It’s definitely playing toward the Republican primary voters,” he said of the governor’s strategy, noting that Mr. Abbott’s goal is to win overwhelmingly in the 2022 Republican primary against two conservative challengers — former state Senator Don Huffines and former Republican Party Chairman Allen West.
James Riddlesperger, a political-science professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, said Mr. Abbott, who, like Mr. DeSantis, is said to have presidential ambitions of his own, sees something similar.
“This is a very high-risk, high-reward strategy that he is pursuing, and other national Republican leaders as well, where they simply don’t believe the Covid crisis is going to cause the amount of deaths that many health professionals are suggesting that it might,” he said.
Understand the State of Vaccine Mandates in the U.S.
In Austin, local health officials approved recommendations that, among other things, urge fully vaccinated individuals to wear a mask and encourage partly and fully unvaccinated individuals to get fully vaccinated, stay home and avoid gatherings, unless an outing is unavoidable. Under Mr. Abbott’s ban on mask and vaccine mandates, though, local officials have no enforcement muscle and can only recommend compliance.
In San Antonio, the virus is taking a toll on medical facilities as well. The seven-day average of new cases there is 1,346, with 1,002 Covid patients hospitalized and 273 of them on ventilators, according to city data.
“I’d say we’re in a pretty dire place,” Mayor Steve Adler of Austin said. “The numbers in our hospitals are approaching the highest that we have seen during the whole pandemic.”
Mr. Adler and mayors in other Democratic-leaning metropolitan areas say the policies that Mr. Abbott and other Republican leaders are adopting against mandates are squashing the powers that local authorities have to deal with the virus.
“He thought that people had a right not to get vaccinated,” Mr. Adler said. “But I don’t think people have the right to put the rest of the community at risk.”
Some officials are considering defying Mr. Abbott’s executive orders. Nelson Wolff, the judge of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, said that he is considering implementing a mask mandate for the county’s 5,000 employees this week.
Mr. Wolff and county commissioners are looking for legal technicalities that would allow them to implement such a mandate in defiance of Mr. Abbott’s directive.
In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner has already gone around the governor’s ban on mask mandates by ordering municipal employees to wear face-coverings inside city buildings and when they are around other people and cannot social distance.
The mayor took the action last week after a two-week surge in the number of municipal employees, including police and firefighters, who were sick with Covid.
“When I saw the exponential increase of city employees getting sick, there’s no way I’m just going to sit by and not at least mandate those measures that we know work,” Mr. Turner said Sunday. “I know what this virus can do.”
Source From Nytimes