Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley’s decision this week to extend the mask mandate another 90 days was about as predictable as rising property taxes.
Of course, with the state mandate still in place, Whitley’s move really doesn’t require us to do anything beyond what Gov. Greg Abbott’s order already demands of us. (So, direct your angry calls accordingly.)
But it still felt like a blow, as it feeds the sense that our present state of faceless, distant existence is never ending.
And it masks, pun intended, the undeniably encouraging news about the pandemic — increased vaccine availability and falling hospitalizations — news that we really need to hear and celebrate after a difficult year.
Whitley told me that the extension was still necessary because “a lot of people won’t wear the masks if it’s left to their own accord.”
That’s probably true, albeit cynical and distrusting of a populace that in my experience has been far more compliant than it gets credit for.
Many people follow rules even when they disagree with them, if only to contribute to a broader feeling of social cohesion, which is in serious decline these days.
Instead of leaving the decision to require masks to individual businesses and organizations, as some states and counties have done to positive effect, Whitley says he is happy to be the bad guy.
“A lot of businesses appreciate” the order, he said.
Indeed, masks have become politicized and many businesses, already struggling from the economic downturn, would probably prefer to avoid becoming the target of pro- or anti-mask tirades and their associated damages, whether in the real or virtual world.
As for the good news on the pandemic-front — the dramatic drop-off of caseloads worldwide; imminent FDA approval of a promising single-dose vaccine; and the combination of infections and vaccinations that many experts expect could deliver herd immunity by summer — Whitley isn’t quite ready to get rosy.
In Tarrant County, Whitley said we’re looking at 300,000-400,000 folks who have some level of immunity, either from the illness or vaccines.
That’s probably an underestimate, given that epidemiologists believe many people had the virus and never knew it.
In a county of 2.1 million, with an estimated 1.5 million who are eligible (children 16 and younger are not approved vaccine recipients) and about 600,000 registered and waiting for a vaccine, herd immunity is achievable if not necessarily imminent.
“We’re just not there yet,” Whitley told me. And “every time it gets a little bit better, everyone wants to relax.”
He may not be incorrect about that, although my guess is that any increase in noncompliance has as much to do with COVID fatigue as celebratory relaxation.
It also assumes that the measures state and local government put in place are as effective as public health officials like to claim.
As we have seen time and again, states and localities that have imposed strict lockdowns and mask mandates see spikes, plateaus and dips in caseloads and deaths similar to those that don’t.
For Whitley, the key to getting back to normal is getting as many people vaccinated as possible, especially those in vulnerable and underserved communities. He’s probably as right about that as he is about anything; immunity in whatever form it comes — not masks — is going to beat this thing.
“We need to get to 2-2.5 months of significantly increased vaccines,” said Whitley, who isn’t as confident as some experts who foresee a vaccine glut by early spring. He acknowledges, though, that the county will have to work on resistance to the vaccine, especially in some minority communities.
But he’s not yet willing to consider some sort of incentive for vaccine recipients, like being permitted to stop wearing a mask. I wish he would.
Candidly, he told me he wants this to be the last extension of the mask order.
“I hope that on Independence Day we are celebrating independence from our masks,” he said.
I don’t think Whitley needs to worry. By July, most Texans will be done with masks regardless of what state and local authorities decree.