Masks or no masks: Data doesn't support argument Texas making a dramatic change from masking conditions a week ago

Today, Texans are no longer under a statewide mandate to wear masks in public, and businesses in the state can operate at 100 percent capacity. President Biden contends that this is “neanderthal thinking,” and many media voices consider it the most reckless decision since the state of Georgia allegedly began a formal experiment in human sacrifice in April 2020. But the data simply don’t support the argument that the Lone Star State is making a dramatic change from masking conditions a week ago, or that it is making a dramatically different move on permitted business capacity, or that states that didn’t enact mask mandates performed the worst during this pandemic. 

No, Texans Aren’t Crazy, or ‘Neanderthal’

Two months before yesterday was Tuesday, January 12. On that day, the state of Texas reported 27,147 new cases of COVID-19 and 305 new deaths from the pandemic. (All numbers from Worldometers.)

Six weeks before yesterday was Tuesday, January 26. On that day, Texas reported 22,796 new cases of COVID-19 and 332 new deaths from the pandemic.

One month before yesterday was Tuesday, February 9. On that day, Texas reported 13,282 new cases of COVID-19 and 303 new deaths from the pandemic.

Two weeks before yesterday was Tuesday, February 23, Texas reported 10,090 new cases of COVID-19 and 258 new deaths from the virus.

Yesterday was Tuesday, March 9. The state of Texas reported 5,119 new cases of COVID-19, and 168 new deaths from the virus.

It’s not quite a straight or smooth line, but you can see a steady decline in cases, followed by a similar decline in deaths. This doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. But it does suggest that the worst is over. Hospitals across the state now report a significant amount of unused capacity. “State health officials in Texas reported to the federal government that 75 percent of inpatient beds and 80 percent of ICU beds in hospitals across the state were still occupied as of March 6. Around 9 percent of beds statewide were filled by COVID-19 patients, they reported.” (Unused hospital beds are good for emergencies, but not good for the long-term financial health of the hospital.)

Texas ranks second in the country in the number of vaccine shots administered, with nearly 7.3 million, but it also ranks second in the number of shots received from manufacturers, because doses are allocated to states by population size. As of this morning, the state has used 75 percent of its delivered supply, which is not an impressive percentage. (It is worth keeping in mind that as more doses get delivered, every state’s percentage-used figure is declining a bit; North Dakota and Minnesota lead the country at 87 percent.) Fifteen percent of Texans have received one shot, and 8.2 percent are fully vaccinated. (We used to use the term “received both shots,” but now the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine is rolling out.) Obviously, getting hit with a terrible winter storm and experiencing widespread power outages does not help a state accelerate its vaccination program.

This week, another million doses have arrived or are scheduled to arrive in Texas. A week ago, Texas made all school and child-care workers eligible for the vaccine.

The more rural, sparsely populated counties in Texas have a higher percentage of their residents vaccinated — in part because they’re sparsely populated and it’s easier to vaccinate a few thousand people than tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. In Presidio County, on the U.S.-Mexican border, 20 percent of the estimated population has been fully vaccinated. In Jeff Davis County, just north of there, 26 percent of the estimated population has been fully vaccinated.

Some polling points to a bit of vaccine hesitation among Texans, although that appears to be dropping. Interest in getting the vaccine appears to be high and broad: “Thousands of people waited in line for multiple hours at the drive-thru vaccine site at the Harvey Convention Center in Tyler on Tuesday.”

All Governor Greg Abbott changed today is to remove the state requirement that people wear masks, allowed businesses and institutions to set their own rules, and removed the capacity restrictions on businesses. (The previous capacity restriction on businesses was 75 percent, which went into effect in mid-October. If you want to give Abbott grief, do so for increasing the capacity restriction right as the weather got cooler and people started spending more time indoors.)

Public life in Texas may not look all that different after the governor’s executive order goes into effect today. H-E-B and other major grocery-store chains say they will still require masks in their stores, as will Costco, Fresh Plus, Sprouts, Target, and Walmart. Many restaurants will still require staff and patrons to wear them when not eating. The city of Austin is still requiring them, and many school districts are keeping mask requirements in place as well.

Keep in mind what Abbott said when he announced he was repealing the executive orders:

With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus. We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent. Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared, but it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations, and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed. Today’s announcement does not abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year. Instead, it is a reminder that each person has a role to play in their own personal safety and the safety of others. With this executive order, we are ensuring that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny.

Here’s how President Biden characterized Abbott’s decision: “the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything is fine, take off your mask. Forget it. It still matters.”

Of course, “Everything is fine, take off your mask,” isn’t what Abbott said at all.

And while Texas is ahead of the curve when it comes to reopening, it’s not that far ahead of other southern and Western states.

Louisiana also has its capacity for businesses at 75 percent, including shopping malls and movie theaters, with no occupancy limits on houses of worship, and 50 percent occupancy for casinos — with 75 percent capacity for gaming positions. Kentucky increased its capacity limit to 60 percent for bars and restaurants, fitness centers, movie theaters, offices, retailers, and more. North Carolina now allows up to 250 people at 50 percent capacity in most business establishments. Virginia now allows gyms to operate at 75 percent capacity. This week, Nevada will allow just about all establishments, including casinos, to increase from 35 percent to 50 percent capacity. New Mexico uses a complicated color-coded system that is dependent upon county numbers over a two-week period, but some counties are at a level where restaurants can operate at 75 percent capacity for indoor dining.

But chances are you haven’t heard about any of those changes, because those states have Democratic governors, and for far too many people, every decision by a Democratic governor is good and every decision by a Republican governor is bad. Thus, you don’t hear any Democrats in Washington grumbling that Louisiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Nevada, or New Mexico is exhibiting “Neanderthal thinking.”

As for the mask orders, 15 states never enacted a mask order during this pandemic. Among the states that never enacted a mask order, the one with the worst COVID death rate per million residents is Mississippi, which ranks fifth out of the 50 states and District of Columbia, with Arizona right behind it. But quite a few states without mask mandates ended up in the lower half of COVID fatalities, adjusted for population. Florida ranks 27th — and remember, the Sunshine State has a disproportionately high share of the nation’s senior citizens, who are most vulnerable to the virus —  Missouri ranks 29th, Montana ranks 33rd, Wyoming ranks 35th, Oklahoma ranks 36th, Nebraska ranks 40th, Idaho ranks 42nd, and Alaska ranks 49th.