Here’s a new study by a trio of economic researchers that attempts to answer questions about the behavioral, public health, and economic effects of Greg Abbott ending the statewide mask mandate and all restrictions on how businesses can operate, all on March 3 of this year. Short answer: Pretty much nothing changed.
This study explores a unique policy shock in Texas to identify the causal impacts of a statewide reopening on public health and economic activity. Texas was first state in the United States to enact a “100% reopening.” Executive Order GA-34, issued by Governor Greg Abbott, (i) eliminated statewide capacity constraints on all businesses, and (ii) abolished the statewide mask mandate (Abbott 2021). Texas’ “first mover” position makes the state’s reopening plausibly exogenous relative to other later-reopening states that followed suit and eased restrictions. Under Governor Greg Abbott’s order, local businesses were free to impose their own voluntary restrictions. Furthermore, unlike the imposition of local shelter-in-place orders which were permitted and widely adopted (Dave et al. 2020a), Governor Abbott advanced the legal position that no local order can supersede the state’s reopening order and legally impose COVID-related capacity constraints on local businesses or fine local residents for not wearing masks.4 At the time the reopening was announced, the state of Texas had administered 5.7 million vaccine shots to its residents, fully vaccinating 11 percent of its adult (ages 16 and older) population Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2021b). By March 29, all adults 16 and older were eligible to obtain a vaccine (Harper 2021) and by April 13, 15.2 million vaccines had been distributed in Texas (Johns Hopkins University 2021), with 26 percent of the adult population completely vaccinated.5 This share had reached nearly 40 percent by mid-May 2021.
This study is the first to examine the impact of a statewide reopening in the midst of a mass statewide vaccination effort. We document three key findings. First, using anonymized smartphone data from SafeGraph, Inc. and a synthetic control approach, we find that the Texas reopening had little impact on stay-at-home behavior or on foot traffic at numerous business locations, including restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, retail establishments, business services, personal care services, and grocery stores. Second, using COVID-19 case and mortality data from the New York Times, we find no evidence that the reopening affected the rate of new COVID-19 cases in the five-week period following the reopening.6 In addition, we find that state-level COVID-19 mortality rates were unaffected by the March 10 reopening. These null results persist when we explore heterogeneity in the state reopening by urbanicity and political ideology of Texas counties. We find no evidence of social distancing or COVID-19 effects of the reopening across more urban versus less urban Texas counties as well as across counties where the majority of residents supported Donald Trump or Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
Finally, we explore whether Governor Abbott’s reopening order generated short-run economic growth in Texas. Using weekly state-level data on UI claims per 1,000 covered jobs from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), synthetic control and difference-in-differences estimates show that neither continued UI claims filed nor new UI claims filed (per 1,000 UI covered job) fell in the five “full week” period following the March 10 reopening. Moreover, using state-level data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), we find no evidence that the Texas reopening reduced the short-run (March 2021) unemployment rate or employment-to-population ratio. Supplemental analysis of microdata from the Current Population Basic Monthly Survey (CPS-BMS) show no evidence that that the reopening affected employment-to-population ratios at bars, restaurants, or entertainment venues. Taken together, our findings underscore the limits of late-pandemic era changes in COVID-19 reopening policies to alter private behavior.
See here for my post about the end of the statewide mask mandate, which I contended should have waited another couple of weeks until more people were vaccinated. I still think that would have been the smarter policy, but what this study tells us is that a lot of people – both mask-wearers and mask-resisters – kept on doing what they’d been doing. In addition, localities that had mask mandates (at least up until recently) largely kept them in place, and businesses that required people to wear masks continued to do so.
That combination of factors is very likely why not much changed despite the new, relaxed rules. Cellphone mobility data was used in May last year to predict the second-wave summer spike, and the reason for it was that with the initial lifting of stay-at-home orders, people went back to pre-pandemic levels of activity, with predictable results. The authors’ point is that at this later stage of the pandemic, people’s behavior was much more accustomed to being restricted, so a change in government policy had much less effect on them. That also means it had much less effect on economic activity, contra what Abbott promised, for the reason that many had proclaimed for months, namely that you can’t really reopen the economy until most people feel comfortable enough to get back out there and shop and dine at restaurants and go to the gym and movies and whatnot. And they won’t feel that way until the pandemic is well and truly beaten, which means taking it seriously until it’s been controlled.
Anyway, there’s grist for a lot of mills in there, so check it out. It’s kind of dense, so if you’d rather have someone else summarize and analyze it for you, there’s this Atlantic story. If even that is too long for you, or if like me you have run out of free Atlantic articles to read, this Twitter thread from the author will have to suffice. He doesn’t touch on the economic stuff, just the health and behavior stuff, but his explanation of the theories about this are nice and succinct. I’m sure we’ll see further study on this topic – it’s too interesting and important for there to be just this one – but for now, this is what we have.