This on us now.
After Gov. Greg Abbott last week decided to lift the mandatory wearing of masks in public — and authorized businesses to operate at 100% capacity, beginning Wednesday — we all have a choice.
Will we continue wearing masks in an effort to protect ourselves and others from the spread of the coronavirus, or will we decide to throw caution to the wind and hope for the best?
In essence. that second option is what the governor is doing.
Texas is still recording more than 7,000 new COVID-19 cases each day, and as of Thursday, fewer than 15% of Texans had received the vaccine — and just under 8% had been fully vaccinated. Those are hardly encouraging figures.
And despite the news that Texas is expecting about 1 million doses of vaccine to arrive in the state next week, it takes time to schedule and administer those shots. Even then, the prospect of reaching the 50% level for vaccinations is several weeks off.
Nonetheless, the governor apparently decided that now is the time to relax restrictions.
It was more than a little ironic that Abbott’s announcement came on Tuesday — Texas Independence Day. Lifting the mask mandate declares our independence from what, exactly? Personal responsibility and consideration of others?
In announcing his decision, Abbott said Texans no longer needed government “running our lives.”
That’s a view that has been shared by a sizable segment of the state’s population since the mandate first went into effect. Many younger people have thought the mandate was unnecessary. Some staunch conservatives have considered it a government overreach.
But in the end, most Texans have come to realize that wearing a mask is beneficial, both to themselves and to others. Combined with social distancing and enhanced hygiene measures, mask wearing is an effective measure in the fight to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Because it has worked well to this point is all the more reason to continue the mandatory practice going forward — not make it optional.
In mid-January, Texas was averaging about 22,000 new cases a week and hospitals were reporting a shortage of beds because of new COVID cases. By this week, the weekly case numbers had fallen by two-thirds, and hospitals were getting back to normal.
But let’s not overlook two important facts.
First, the number of daily cases is no longer falling. In fact, it has increased slightly during the past week, likely because the state has emerged from the recent severe cold weather that kept people indoors and delayed reporting of new cases.
But another important factor is the threat posed by new variants of the virus, which have the potential to spread even more rapidly and are highly resistant to the current vaccines.
Certainly, many Texas businesses have been hampered by restrictions on capacity and social distancing requirements, but the lifting of the state mask mandate could hardly come at a more inopportune time.
With warm weather arriving soon and spring break on the horizon, the potential for super-spreader events will escalate — and that threat is even greater if mask wearing is considered optional.
No doubt, the governor wants to give businesses the opportunity to thrive by relaxing restrictions to pre-COVID levels. And Abbott did say that he is still encouraging Texans to wear masks, as well as allowing businesses to set their own social-distancing policies.
But in many ways, the governor’s change in strategy actually hurts businesses that are trying to operate safely — especially when dropping the mandate is paired with more densely packed customers.
By removing the mandate, Abbott is taking away the business owners’ safety net. They can no longer fall back on a state mandate when telling customers to mask up. It also puts them in position of being the bad guy when customers want to go without masks, despite the businesses’ stated policies.
Still, many retail chains and restaurants have already said they’ll stick with their mask requirements. Target, CVS and Starbucks have all said they won’t change their policies this week. H-E-B stores also will still require the wearing of masks by customers and employees, according to a message last week from the chain’s corporate headquarters.
For our part, the Killeen Daily Herald will continue to require that our customers wear masks when they enter the building — and our employees will continue to do the same.
Local school districts have also stood firm in the wake of the governor’s announcement. The Killeen, Copperas Cove and Temple school districts, in particular, have said they will continue to require mask wearing by students and staff.
As individuals, however, we all have a simple choice to make: Convenience or consideration.
When we wear a mask, we not only protect ourselves from potential exposure to the virus, but we also show our concern for others. The same holds true for maintaining proper social distancing and exercising good hygiene practices.
However, our commitment to stopping the virus’s spread will be tested once the mandate is lifted.
As customers, we must exercise our right to do business where we feel safe and protected. If we visit an establishment and observe that patrons are packed tightly together or that employees are not wearing masks, we should not hesitate to walk out.
No doubt, some retail and restaurant businesses may benefit from the relaxed COVID restrictions, but others likely will see a dropoff if their clientele feels the risk of virus exposure is too great.
Obviously, these are considerations that every business owner must take into account, and some will have to adjust their policies over time to reflect the public’s preferences.
Central Texans remember what happened last time the state’s economy opened up too soon — a surge in COVID infections early last summer. We certainly don’t want a repeat performance, ushered in by a relaxed mask mandate and removal of crowd capacity limits.
The best thing we can do, as individuals, is to keep doing what we’re doing. That is, keep doing what has worked.
That means keep wearing our masks, and avoid large, tightly packed indoor venues.
Mask wearing may be inconvenient, and as warmer weather arrives, it may be a bit uncomfortable.
But it’s something we can all do to make a difference in the fight against the virus.
That alone is a reason to keep doing our part — both for ourselves and for others.