We’re so close to beating COVID-19. Why would Abbott end mask rule and make it worse?

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Before issuing his order to end mask mandates, Gov. Greg Abbott must not have looked at the recent numbers of coronavirus deaths in Texas. Or worse, he did and decided that the 59 deaths reported Monday is good enough.

Either way, the governor’s order Tuesday to end the statewide mask mandate and business capacity restrictions is a mistake. Even with recent improvement in COVID-19 case totals, hospitalizations and deaths, the pandemic is not over. Another spike is possible before enough people are vaccinated to finally squelch the disease’s spread, and Abbott’s order makes it more likely we’ll see one in Texas.

The governor was careful to say that everyone should still take personal responsibility and adhere to public health recommendations. And many no doubt will. But plenty will hear only that the governor says we’re in the clear and ditch their facial coverings. Sending that message, even wrapped in a careful warning about the need to follow guidelines, is irresponsible.

At a minimum, Abbott should have given local officials flexibility. His new order appears to offer no wiggle room whatsoever. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who just extended the local mask order last week, reversed course almost immediately after Abbott’s announcement and canceled mask mandates. Abbott’s order may be fine in many parts of Texas, but in large urban areas, public health officials and elected officeholders need to be able to respond to a sudden surge.

Abbott has made it pretty tough for them to react. His order allows county judges in areas where coronavirus cases make up more than 15% of hospitalizations to impose some “COVID-19-related mitigation strategies,” though with almost no enforcement power.

The position the governor has put businesses in, too, is maddening. Many would no doubt like to continue requiring masks, if only for the sake of their potentially vulnerable employees. They still can, but it raises the risk of confrontation and makes it harder to justify such a requirement when the governor declares it’s time to end it.

Large chains will probably keep their mask requirements, though it will be harder for individual locations to enforce them. And local businesses risk antagonizing customers they need to survive.

Why do this now? Why, when the news is so good on cases, hospitalizations and vaccine production, increase the danger? Why, with spring break and its associated travel and activity around the corner, send the message that we can let our guard down?

There’s little to gain, unless the governor has been feeling heat on his right flank over COVID restrictions. He highlighted his steady approval ratings on the eve of his announcement, and politically seems to be in good shape.

On the other part of his order, removing restrictions that had businesses operating at a maximum 75% of their capacity, Abbott may merely be nodding to reality. Texans’ activity levels seem to have increased in recent weeks, and many businesses don’t seem to be paying attention to headcount.

His order encourages continued social distancing. So, Abbott acknowledges that crowded spaces are a bad idea but takes away a tool to limit crowding. Pity the poor restaurant owner who tries to untie that knot.

Texans are understandably done with this nightmarish year of the pandemic and its restrictions. Every day brings good news about the vaccine supply, the quickening pace of inoculations and a possible return to so many of life’s activities that are still on hold. Like an exhausted runner, Texans are lunging for the finish line.

It’s lamentable that the governor can’t show the patience that most citizens have. Instead, he decided to make more illness and death more likely just as the finish line is in sight.