For anyone who has followed Joe Biden’s political career, the image he presented of himself during the 2020 campaign was a laughable contrivance. Biden as paternalistic bridge-builder with an inviolable commitment to courtesy and collegiality made for a strong contrast with his compulsively churlish opponent. But the president was never the “good cop” he pretended to be.
We got a fleeting glimpse of the real Joe Biden on Wednesday following the edict of two Republican governors that will lift many statewide COVID restrictions. “I think it’s a big mistake,” Biden said of the decision by the governors of Texas and Mississippi to ease pandemic-related proscriptions, including mask mandates. “The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it. It still matters.”
It would have been foolish if, for example, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told his constituents that “everything’s fine” and Texans should “take off your mask” and “forget” about the pandemic. But that wasn’t what he said, nor is that likely to be the outcome of his state’s policies.
What Abbott announced was that “all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100 percent.” The executive orders put in place during the pandemic, including masking requirements, would be rescinded because “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.” It would have been a premature declaration of victory over the pandemic if Abbott had stopped there. But he didn’t.
Abbott also urged Texans to exercise “personal vigilance.” “Removing statewide mandates does not end personal responsibility,” the governor added. While his orders will foreclose on criminal penalties for people who do not wear masks, businesses can still impose masking requirements on their patrons and deny them service if they do not comply. Biden’s reaction to the move might lead you to believe that Texas is the first state in the Union to withdraw such edicts and that reckless mouth-breathing troglodytes will soon overrun the state as a result. In fact, Texas is now the 15th state without a universal masking ordinance. It joins states such as Georgia, Arizona, and Florida where, despite the occasional viral video to the contrary, masking is a self-reinforcing social norm just as it is in much of the country.
Likewise, Abbott’s decision to withdraw capacity requirements on businesses does sound risky until you consider that he’s raising caps to 100 percent from their present 75 percent. Businesses, Abbott advised, can continue to “limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols.” As in much of the country, these are guidelines that states have largely struggled to enforce. For the most part, the only teeth associated with capacity requirements are those of the businesses themselves.
Finally, in the event of a resurgence of the virus, Texas judges “may use COVID mitigation strategies in their county.” That failsafe is triggered when COVID-19 hospitalization rates rise above 15 percent of the region’s capacity for seven-straight days. Again, maybe that is too high, but there must be a trigger. Should it be 8 percent? Ten percent? Twelve and a half? We can debate the threshold, but society cannot function with emergency restrictions in place indefinitely. There must be a threshold of some kind that will trigger their reimposition based on relative local conditions.
Abbott’s approach is not without risk. Texas’s prevailing COVID infection rate is higher than the national average, and the state has lagged much of the Union in administering vaccines. The story is much the same in Mississippi. Both states are placing a big bet on individuals’ ability to limit their exposure to potentially dangerous situations while also ensuring that small businesses don’t suffocate under the heavy hand of state government. It’s important not to judge the results of this experiment before they’re in. But that’s what Biden has done, and he’s not alone.
“My biggest fear is that we’re going to lose more people,” one Texas ICU nurse told CNN. “Texas will experience more cases, more hospitalizations, and more deaths,” Texas State Rep. Richard Peña added. “At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo alleged. “Gov. Abbott has purposefully injected a new infection in Texas in the form of irresponsible policies that will promote unnecessary infection, hospitalization, and death,” read one health policy researcher’s terrorized reaction to this policy.
They might be right, and it would be terrible if they were. But the way is littered with predictions about how this virus would operate that mercifully failed to materialize. The innumerable “super spreader events” that weren’t and unfounded fears that states without masking mandates, like Florida, would be overrun with pestilence should lead Texas’ critics to be more cautious. Likewise, the suboptimal performance of states with onerous restrictions on individuals and enterprise alike, including New York and California, have led even the most zealous COVID hawks to throw up their hands in confusion. Uncertainty is the lesson here.
But there is certainty about one thing: Lifting restrictions now undermines what seems to be the Biden administration’s central objective, which is to assume credit for the pandemic’s decline. Little else explains this White House’s contemptible effort to pretend as though they did not inherit a preexisting vaccination regime from the Trump administration and had to start from “square one.” It explains why the president was reluctant to set more ambitious vaccination goals than the one the nation was already meeting on Inauguration Day. It explains why “normal” won’t be the prevailing feature of American life until next March, even though every American who wants a vaccine will be able to access one by July. And it goes a long way toward explaining why the Centers for Disease Control abruptly aborted a plan to release guidance for vaccinated Americans, which Dr. Anthony Fauci intimated would be relatively lax and liberating, following the conspicuous intervention of the Biden administration’s Department of Health and Human Services.
In that regard, Texas is moving too fast as a matter of both public-health policy and politics. It should be the priority of every public official at the tail end of this crisis to separate these two pressures and prioritize one over the other. A failure to do so is not just irresponsible; it’s playing games with people’s lives. Someone without the grace demanded of a national political figure might even call that “Neanderthal thinking.”