The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and leading medical experts may be saying everyone in a location where COVID is surging again — regardless of vaccination status — should be wearing a mask these days, but Gov. Greg Abbott insists it’s a matter of personal responsibility.
In an executive order issued Thursday evening, Abbott not only reiterated that he wouldn’t be mandating masks, but he also wouldn’t let local authorities seeing a surge in cases mandate them, either.
In fact, the order imposes a fine of up to $1,000 on anyone who tries to impose a mask mandate.
“Today’s executive order will provide clarity and uniformity in the Lone Star State’s continued fight against COVID-19,” Abbott said. “The new Executive Order emphasizes that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates. Texans have mastered the safe practices that help to prevent and avoid the spread of COVID-19. They have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, and engage in leisure activities. Vaccines, which remain in abundant supply, are the most effective defense against the virus, and they will always remain voluntary – never forced – in the State of Texas.”
The order also forbids government entities from compelling “any individual to receive a COVID-19 vaccine administered under an emergency use authorization.” It also rescinds a measure from a previous order that allows local officials to reduce business capacity if COVID-19 hospitalizations exceed 15% of total hospital capacity in the region for seven days straight.
Covid-related hospitalizations in the state have risen nearly 40 percent in the past week. The CDC this week recommended that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in areas where cases are surging.
A recent report from UT Southwestern showed hospital volumes in North Texas have risen 89% over the past two weeks and their model projects hospitalizations could reach levels similar to the beginning of 2021 — the worst of the pandemic — by October if the pace of vaccinations remains the same.
Forecasters at the University of Texas at Austin’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium said that most regions of the state could see the same hits to hospital capacity that many facilities were seeing at the height of the pandemic in January within a couple of weeks.
“We are absolutely on a path to hit a surge as large, if not bigger, than the previous surges right now” Spencer Fox, associate director at the consortium, told the Texas Tribune. “If nothing is done, we’re on a crash course for a very large third wave.”
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins — who has frequently disagreed with Abbott’s approach to the pandemic — did not mince words about the latest order.
“The Governor’s order is based on polling data of what Republican primary voters want to hear; conversely, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations are based on the most recent data regarding the much more contagious Delta variant and what scientists and medical professionals have learned thus far to combat the spread and harm of COVID,” he said, adding that the fact that the order won’t allow school districts to require a mask increases “the chance another school year will be ruined for students, while also making it more difficult to stop the spread of COVID and illness for children and their families.”
So far, vaccinations are only available for those 12 years of age and older, leaving most elementary school-aged children vulnerable if exposed. Both Pfizer and Moderna have announced they will expand their trials for children ages 5-11, but there has been no real timeline provided for when a vaccine for younger students will be available.
“It is my hope that parents will work with school districts to get those eligible students age 12 and up vaccinated, and follow mask-wearing recommendations within buildings,” Jenkins said. “My advice remains the same: to win the war against COVID we must follow the science and listen to the experts, not the politicians.”