Opinion: Texas and Mississippi governors are recklessly reopening

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Mariel Garza
·5 min read
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Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaks with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott before greeting President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) speaks with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott before greeting President Biden and first lady Jill Biden at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston on Feb. 26. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

With more people vaccinated against COVID-19 every day and case numbers just a fraction of what they were at the beginning of the year, it seems as if — finally — we are are beating the pandemic.

But remember what happened last time we thought that? It feels like a million years have passed since May, so I will refresh your memory. After a couple of terrible months huddling in our homes surrounded by cases of toilet paper, it seemed that the nasty little coronavirus was on retreat. Hooray! We flattened that ol' curve but good.

Pandemic restrictions were shucked off along with our pandemic PJs. But after a few short weeks of people crowding back into bars, having barbecues and going to protests, the virus came roaring back to life. After the summer surge had abated, people let down their guards once again, and I don't have to tell you what happened. The horror of the holiday season is still playing out in death and despair even if the numbers of people fighting for their lives in the hospitals are down to pre-holiday levels.

On Monday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urged states not to reopen too soon, lest they undo all the months of mask wearing and social distancing. Cases are already starting to tick up, she said, and relaxing our guard too soon could precipitate a fourth wave.

“Please hear me clearly,” Walensky said during a briefing with the White House’s COVID19 response team. “At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained.”

Apparently, the governors of Texas and Mississippi don't hear clearly. Or perhaps they simply don't care to listen to lady scientists who don't tell them what they want to hear. On Tuesday they both announced that they were lifting pandemic restrictions in their state, including mask mandates.

In his announcement, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott claimed that “state mandates are no longer needed" and said he was allowing businesses in the Lone Star State to open to full capacity starting next week.

Abbott seems to be forgetting his own role in the second and third waves of COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of 44,000 Texans so far. In June, he said he regretted letting bars open too soon after the first wave. The "bar setting, in reality, just doesn't work with a pandemic," he said.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted that his state would be doing the same but even sooner: “Starting tomorrow, we are lifting all of our county mask mandates and businesses will be able to operate at full capacity without any state-imposed rules. Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed. It is time!”

As far as I can tell from their official websites and Wikipedia entries, neither Reeves nor Abbott are scientists or even scientifically inclined. Abbott is a lawyer who spent his pre-gubernatorial career either arguing before a judge or serving as one. Reeves was in banking and finance.

I'm not sure what gives them the expertise to override the guidance of the nation's top infectious disease experts. Especially when hundreds of thousands of their residents still don't have clean water to wash their hands, weeks after the arctic storm that tore through the region last month.

Nor are their states shining examples of COVID-19 vaccine distribution — both are below the national average in giving shots. Just 14% of people in Mississippi and 13% of Texans have received at least one shot. Even California, with its well-publicized vaccine rollout mess, is doing a better job of inoculating its people.

You would think Abbott in particular would be less sanguine about putting his people in harm’s away. Texans might have forgotten what he said or did last summer, but they can't have forgotten that just last month millions of them had to endure days of freezing temperatures without power and heat after a massive failure of the state's electrical grid. Dozens of people died.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted two words about Abbott’s announcement: “Absolutely reckless.” And Newsom should know. He was among the governors who lifted restrictions prematurely in May only to watch the virus come roaring back a few weeks later. Now he requires that counties reopen only when certain metrics are met, and then only by degrees.

In recent months, state legislators across the country have started talking about curbing the wide-reaching executive powers that they'd previously given governors to use during prolonged emergencies. They do have a point. One person, it turns out, can do a lot of damage.

And for what? On Tuesday, President Biden said that the country should have enough vaccines for every adult by the end of May, which is really not that far away. We should know long before then if the current retreat of the virus will hold. Is that really too long to wait to go outside without a face mask or see a movie in a packed theater?

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.