Texans prize their self-image as rugged individualists. But to get through a year of sheltering in place from the pandemic and a week of subfreezing temperatures both indoors and out, we have needed more help than ever before from one another and from our government. Meanwhile, our state leaders are riding through what seems to be a fantasy Texas landscape, where only weaklings or socialists need help from the government.
If that was true, it isn’t now.
Individualism and personal responsibility are important values. But an equally powerful strength consists not in going it alone, but in leading the way for people to come together for help and support. Laws that require mask-wearing do just that. By revoking our mask mandate, Gov. Greg Abbott shows he lacks the strength that this moment requires.
Texas needs leaders with strengths that are up to the challenges we face today. But that’s not what we have. And some Texans will die needlessly as a result.
Last summer, Abbott refused to institute a mask requirement until the state was overrun by new COVID-19 infections. Last month, our state power grid was less than five minutes away from a total collapse that would have taken weeks if not months to repair. Texans were harmed because our leadership refuses to enact common-sense public safety regulations that are widely used in the rest of the country.
Now, the governor has once again put Texans in harm’s way by prematurely lifting the statewide mask mandate.
There is no scientific justification for this action. National experts have discouraged any weakening of mask mandates, one of the easiest and most powerful ways to combat the coronavirus. One of Abbott’s former advisers criticized the move as premature.
And what is so bad about masks, anyway? Sure, they are a bit annoying. But anyone who has put on a too-snug necktie or high-heeled shoes has chosen to wear clothing that is significantly more restrictive and uncomfortable than a mask. Why, then, do people get upset about wearing a mask? Just because someone tells us to wear it?
Do we really value the lives of our fellow Texans so cheaply?
When we wear a mask, we show that we care more about keeping others safe than our own minor discomfort. Where some see a mask as an abridgement of personal freedom, others proudly wear their masks as an expression of solidarity at a difficult time.
Revoking the mask mandate takes away one of the few defenses of front-line supermarket and food service workers against customers who endanger others by refusing to wear masks. Without the mandate, such workers are at even greater risk from the behavior of their customers.
On the heels of revoking the mask mandate, our state leadership has omitted these front-line workers from the most recent expansion of vaccine eligibility. Together, the continued mask mandate and inclusion in vaccine eligibility group 1C could have done a great deal to protect the workers who have kept our state afloat for the past year. Instead, we will continue to send these courageous and hardworking Texans into unsafe environments.
That is the choice our leaders have made. It is the wrong choice.
Laws make a statement about our values. Abbott could have made mask-wearing a symbol of Texas’ can-do spirit. Instead, he has appealed to our “personal responsibility.”
When Abbott revokes the mask mandate, what people hear is “we don’t need to wear masks anymore.” His appeal to personal responsibility instead of state regulations during a pandemic is not a policy. It’s a cop-out.
Personal responsibility right now means that we not only wear a mask, we call out our public officials who abdicate their responsibility to ensure that everyone wears one.
Deborah Beck is an associate professor of classics at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News.