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March 3rd, 2021:

Abbott lifts statewide mask mandate

Unbelievable.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he is ending Texas’ statewide mask mandate next week and will allow all businesses to operate at full capacity.

“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” Abbott said from a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, arguing that Texas has fought the coronavirus pandemic to the point that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate” any longer.

Abbott said he was rescinding “most of the earlier executive orders” he has issued over the past year to stem the spread of the virus. He said starting next Wednesday, “all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100%” and masks will no longer be required in public. The mask requirement has been in effect since last summer.

Meanwhile, the spread of the virus remains substantial across the state, with Texas averaging over 200 reported deaths a day over the last week. And while Abbott has voiced optimism that vaccinations will accelerate soon, less than 7% of Texans had been fully vaccinated as of this weekend.

Texas will become the most populous state in the country not to have a mask mandate. More than 30 states currently have one in place.

Abbott urged Texans to still exercise “personal vigilance” in navigating the pandemic. “It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed,” he said.

Currently, most businesses are permitted to operate at 75% capacity unless their region is seeing a jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations. While he was allowing businesses to fully reopen, Abbott said that people still have the right to operate how they want and can “limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols.” Abbott’s executive order said there was nothing stopping businesses from requiring employees or customers to wear masks.

[…]

Texans have been under a statewide mask mandate since July of last year — and they have grown widely comfortable with it, according to polling. The latest survey from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune found that 88% of the state’s voters wear masks when they’re in close contact with people outside of their households. That group includes 98% of Democrats and 81% of Republicans.

The absence of statewide restrictions should not be a signal to Texans to stop wearing masks, social distancing, washing their hands or doing other things to keep the virus from spreading, said Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force.

Carlo declined to react specifically to Abbott’s order, saying he had not had a chance to read it. He also expressed concern that new virus variants, specifically the U.K. variant, could still turn back the positive trends cited by Abbott.

“We’re facing unacceptably high rates, and we still hear every day about more and more people becoming sick. And it may be less than before, but it’s still too many,” Carlo said. “Even if businesses open up and even if we loosen restrictions, that does not mean we should stop what we’re doing because we’re not there yet.”

It was clear from what Abbott said during President Biden’s visit that he was planning to take action to loosen restrictions. I was prepared for him to announce a step-down or a schedule or something more gradual. I did not expect him to just rip the bandage right off. I don’t know what to say, but Judge Hidalgo does, so let’s listen to her.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner slammed Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday for allowing all businesses in Texas to fully reopen next week and lifting his statewide mask mandate, suggesting the governor timed the move to distract angry Texans from the widespread power outages during the recent winter storm.

“At best, today’s decision is wishful thinking,” Hidalgo said. “At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”

Turner said Abbott’s decision to rescind the COVID measures marked “the third time the governor has stepped in when things were going in the right direction,” a reference to the surges in cases, hospitalizations and deaths that ensued after Abbott implemented reopening guidelines last year.

“It makes no sense,” Turner said. “Unless the governor is trying to deflect from what happened a little less than two weeks ago with the winter storm.”

[…]

Before Abbott’s announcement, Hidalgo and Turner sent the governor a letter urging him not to lift his statewide mask mandate.

“Supported by our public health professionals, we believe it would be premature and harmful to do anything to lose widespread adoption of this preventative measure,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote, arguing the mandate has allowed small businesses to remain open by keeping cases down.

The disparity between Hidalgo and Turner’s concerns — that Abbott would simply lift the mask order but keep other restrictions intact — and his decision to fully reopen the state puts on full display the diverging messages Houstonians are receiving from their local Democratic leaders and the Republicans who run the state. While Hidalgo is telling residents to stay home and buckle down, Abbott is giving the green light for a return to normal life, albeit one where Texans govern themselves using “personal responsibility,” he said Tuesday.

We know how well that’s worked so far. The irony is that other parts of state government still understand what’s at stake:

I’d love to say that Abbott will suffer political blowback for this, but polling data is mixed and inconsistent.

Texas voters’ concerns about the spread of coronavirus are higher now than they were in October, before a winter surge in caseloads and hospitalizations, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Almost half of Texas voters (49%) said that they are either extremely or very concerned about the spread of the pandemic in their communities — up from 40% in October. Their apprehension matches the spread of the coronavirus. As cases were rising in June, 47% had high levels of concern.

Caseloads were at a low point in October, as was voter concern about spread. And sharp increases through the holidays and into the new year were matched by a rise in public unease.

Voters’ concern about “you or someone you know” getting infected followed that pattern, too. In the current poll, 50% said they were extremely or very concerned, up from 44% in October, and close to the 48% who responded that way in the June poll.

“The second, bigger surge seems to have had an impact on people’s attitudes,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “In October, there was a trend of Republicans being less concerned, but this does reflect what a hard period the state went through from October to February.”

While their personal concerns have risen, voters’ overall assessment of the pandemic hasn’t changed much. In the latest survey, 53% called it “a significant crisis,” while 32% called it “a serious problem but not a crisis.” In October, 53% called it significant and 29% called it serious.

Economic concerns during the pandemic remain high. Asked whether it’s more important to help control the spread of the coronavirus or to help the economy, 47% pointed to the coronavirus and 43% said it’s more important to help the economy. In a June poll, 53% of Texans wanted to control the spread and 38% wanted to focus on the economy.

“The economy/COVID number is 2-to-1 in other parts of the country. Here, it’s almost even,” said Daron Shaw, a UT-Austin government professor and co-director of the poll. “What was a 15-point spread is now a 4-point spread.

So people are concerned about the pandemic, but also about the economy. Some of that may just be a reflection of the partisan split, but I have no doubt that Abbott thinks the politics of this are good for him, and that’s even before we take into account the distraction from the freeze. The scenario where he’s most likely to take a hit is one in which the numbers spike and a lot more people die. Nobody wants that to happen, yet here we are at a higher risk of it because of Abbott’s actions. It’s just enraging. So please keep wearing your damn mask, even after you get your shots. Wait for someone with more credibility than Greg Abbott to tell you it’s safe to do otherwise.

One more thing:

We both know how plausible that is. Texas Monthly, Reform Austin, the San Antonio Report, the Texas Signal, and the Chron has more.

An early analysis of the CD06 special election

Four your perusal.

Rep. Ron Wright

So, this is the part where I say the take I’ve had in my head since the seat opened up – Joe Biden should have won the district, and it was a fairly pathetic result to lose by 3. The district – a diverse, socially liberal seat without too many whites without a degree should have gone blue. What we can’t say with certainty, but I feel very confident about, is that Biden’s numbers with white voters and Beto’s numbers with Hispanics would have left the seat as a dead tie, because Beto outran Biden by 14% with Hispanics, and correcting that would move the seat left by about 3%. If Biden had managed to actually meaningfully advance off 2018 with college whites, the district is his, and honestly, it would be so fairly easily. That inability to convert those voters at the pace or speed that many expected, led by polls that just entirely missed reality, was a shock.

Given my prior beliefs – that rural whites and low propensity Hispanics won’t turn out like they did in 2020 – I feel pretty good in saying that the electorate that will vote on special election day (and in the weeks before) will be an electorate that would have voted for Joe Biden. I expect Tarrant to cast a greater share of votes this year than 2020, I expect the % of the electorate with a college degree to rise, and I expect Black voters in the district to be motivated to continue the arduous work of bailing out white America, because that seems to be the life that white America demands of them. That said, I don’t think Democrats are favoured – after all, the GOP did outrun Biden/Trump by 5% downballot.

There are three wrinkles in this conversation, which all matter. The first is that the widow is running, which could engender some sympathy from voters, making this election a harder data point to extrapolate from, and the second is a related point, which is that I have no idea who the Democratic nominee will be. I can’t pretend to be too eager to run the guy who managed to underrun Joe Biden by 5% again, but I’m not sure who would be better. Neither of those issues radically change my assessment of this race.

My first thought, from the moment the race unfortunately triggered, was that we would get a result better for Democrats than November 2020 and not good enough to credibly contend, in other words, a 3-5% loss with a couple of tied internals that gets certain parts of Twitter excited. That remains my prediction – something between the Presidential result and the House result, one that is good news for Democrats but not great news, or inarguably good for them. Again, I expect the GOP to win this seat. But I won’t be surprised if they lose it, because of the third wrinkle this race has seen.

The third wrinkle to this race – don’t worry, I hadn’t forgotten about it – is the song of fire and ice that Texas had to live with (and, in many places, is still living with). Or, maybe better, the song of ice and ice. The cold snap has exposed the state as woefully unprepared for huge amounts of snow, which leads to debatable positions on how southern states should prepare for freak snowstorms. That Texans got absolutely fucked by ERCOT, and are staring at 5 figure power bills that are a fucking disgrace, is not up for similar debate. This debacle – and the way that Democrats from AOC to Beto have stepped up to the plate, while Ted Cruz cut and run to Cancun – has the potential to sour people on the Texas GOP, especially if the threat of people actually having to pay those sorts of expenses is still hanging in the air on voting day.

Emphasis in the original, and see here and here for some background. Stephen Daniel, the 2020 candidate alluded to above, is not running, but 2018 candidate Jana Sanchez, who trailed Beto by about three points in 2018, is running. I agree that probably doesn’t matter that much, but for what it’s worth, I think it’s more that Ron Wright, who had previously been the Tax Assessor/Collector in Tarrant County, ran ahead of the GOP pack more than Daniel and Sanchez ran behind. That advantage likely transfers to Susan Wright, but it may vanish if she finishes out of the money. The filing deadline is today, so we’ll see how big and potentially chaotic this field will be.

More vaccines coming

Bring ’em.

The Food and Drug Administration approved Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine on Saturday for use in the U.S., the third vaccine to be approved since the pandemic began.

Texas could initially receive more than 200,000 doses, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, but the agency hasn’t received a timeline for when they would arrive. The company has said it plans to ship 20 million shots in the U.S. by the end of March and an additional 80 million doses before the end of June.

Texas received about 1.5 million vaccine doses by Pfizer and Moderna this week, including doses that had been undelivered earlier in the month because of the winter storm.

Unlike those vaccines, Johnson & Johnson’s formulation is the first to only require one dose, and it can be stored at regular refrigeration temperatures. The others require two doses, and Pfizer doses must be stored at below-freezing temperatures.

[…]

Five million vaccine doses have been administered overall in Texas as of Feb. 25. That equals about 5.8% of the state’s population — a long way from the 70% to 80% that experts estimate is necessary to achieve herd immunity. It would require nearly 100% of adults to be vaccinated to reach those figures, according to census numbers.

Scientists are still monitoring how well vaccines prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and health officials advise those who are vaccinated to continue wearing masks, social distance and follow other COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Hopefully, the J&J vaccine will really kick this up a notch, since it only requires the one shot. But as always, it’s first a matter of supply, and just having another supplier should help. If J&J is delivering 80 million doses nationally by the end of June, that should be six or seven million for Texas. It’s all about the numbers.