The Texas Covid crisis worsens – why is the governor resisting masks?

On Tuesday afternoon, a steady stream of customers flowed into Austin’s famed music store, Waterloo Records. Aisle after aisle, everyone wore masks. No mask, no vinyl.

Related: Texas and Florida accounted for nearly 40% of US Covid hospitalizations last week

“Either you’re gonna fight and not be able to come in, or wear a mask and come in. I mean, it’s really not hard,” said Jessy Schwartz, Waterloo’s manager.

The Austin area is in the midst of a dire Covid-19 crisis, after setting local records this week for the most patients in intensive care and on ventilators. Only seven ICU beds remain in a region of almost 2.4 million. Statewide, hospitals are so depleted that the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, is turning to medical personnel from out of state.

Yet Abbott has expressly prohibited governmental entities like school districts, cities and counties from requiring masks or vaccines – two of the easiest, most effective weapons against the virus. In stricken Austin, like much of Texas and other Republican-run states, rightwing governors are actively hampering the health policies that could halt the spread of the virus.

Private businesses like Waterloo can tell customers to wear masks, but unlike earlier this year, they have no statewide mandate to back them up. And if businesses ask for their patrons’ proof of vaccination, they risk losing their licenses and permits.

“Abbott is a complete idiot. He’s the biggest piece of shit,” Schwartz said.

“Yeah he is,” an eavesdropper chimed in.

“I mean, aren’t they Republicans?” Schwartz said. “Didn’t they want local government to be able to make their own choices?”

Critics of the Texas government have been flummoxed by that question for well over a year, as Republican state leaders have consistently stripped local entities of control when it comes to fighting Covid-19.

Now, Abbott is threatening to sue “any school district, public university, or local government official” that violates his policies – despite experts saying that masking will prevent unnecessary deaths, and vaccinations can end the pandemic.

“What I just don’t understand is why we would not want to get through this wave of Covid as quickly as possible, which science tells us the way to do that is to require masks,” said Judge Andy Brown, who serves Austin’s Travis county.

Abbott’s crusade to curb Covid-related regulations comes ahead of his re-election campaign next year, when he will face primary challengers who lambasted his earlier safety measures. It’s one in many signs of a noticeable shift to the right by the conservative governor, who is wooing Texas’s primary voters with political lightning rods and red meat conservatism.

© Provided by The Guardian Greg Abbott at a UFC event in Texas last weekend. Photograph: Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC

Video: Dallas schools issue their own mask mandate (CNBC)

“I don’t see anything other than electoral politics that would have a statewide government leader deny local communities the ability to adopt time-tested measures to prevent the spread of communicable disease,” Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, told the Guardian. “None.”

Austin’s uptick in infections is colliding with the start of the school year, while children under the age of 12 remain ineligible for the vaccine. Teachers are staring down a semester with far more students, the more contagious Delta variant, but no talk of accommodations for remote work.

They are already dreading logistical nightmares spurred by quarantines and sick days.

“I love my school. I love my co-workers. I love my students,” said Leslie Hibbard, an eighth-grade science teacher with the Austin independent school district. “But that’s also the case that a lot of teachers are in. And we put up with, you know, bad conditions because of it.”

Even before classes resume, local authorities have warned that more infants, kids and teens are starting to suffer severe illness from Covid-19. They worry children will ultimately pay the price for the governor’s anti-mask agenda.

“I think it’s a decision that is going to result in kids ending up in the ICU, on ventilators, and worse,” Brown said.

To avert potential tragedy, Austin has used a flurry of orders and announcements to reinstate mask requirements at schools and on city or county property, at least for now. They are joined by a huge swath of school districts and local governments that have also rebelled against Abbott.

In response, the state government is already going after a Dallas-area order that would require masks in schools, childcare centers and businesses, among other places.

Likewise, after two restaurants in Austin tried to ask customers for proof of vaccination earlier this week – a practice that has become commonplace elsewhere in the country – a state agency threatened to pull their alcohol licenses.

Justine Gilcrease, who owns Justine’s Brasserie in east Austin, had hoped she might be able to implement a similar vaccination requirement. “It just seems so very logical,” she said. “If we were legally allowed to do so, I would absolutely do it.”

Gilcrease thinks Abbott’s hardline restrictions are pure politics, but to her, they are also blatantly anti-business. As cases surge again, she now has to make public health decisions for the greater good that hurt her bottom line.

Not everyone’s appreciative.

“We definitely get flak. Our staff does. It’s a lot of pressure placed on businesses,” she said.

On Wednesday evening, the brasserie’s patio was teeming with champagne buckets as friends dined in individual bungalows or under an open-air tent. Outdoor fans fought back flies and the Texas heat, while the night air buzzed with carefree conversation.

But inside the dining room, a darker reality emerged. Only five of the normal 25 tables had been set out, with no bar seating. Multiple signs reminded customers to wear masks. The trappings of a boisterous French cafe were all there, yet it felt muted and empty.

Loulou Ghelichkhani, Justine’s general manager, said it had been difficult to keep things so tame. She’s used to more of a party scene, with hundreds spilling out from the bar to socialize.

But she and her staff want to survive. And she’s appalled that the state is trying so hard to beat back safety protocols meant to protect them.

“Somehow it feels like in Texas, it’s not about our comfort zone,” she said. “It’s not about the safety of the workers or the patrons.

“So I’m just … I’m more confused, and questioning what the motive is to actually have such a strong stand – to be against the people that are living in your state.”

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