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Is wearing a mask a political statement or an intelligence test?
Masks have become signifiers of how seriously people take the pandemic and the advice from government officials and medical experts that wearing a mask in public is a simple and effective way to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
If you want to make a political game of it, go ahead. But be warned: The masks are winning that fight.
Science trumps ideology on this one.
The number of Texans hospitalized for COVID-19 has set records for ten days in a row. The number of deaths attributed to the pandemic in Texas has crossed the 2,000 mark. The number of coronavirus cases to date is closing in on 100,000, and is heading in that direction at an increasing rate of speed.
More people are out and about. Their interactions — whether for work, for shopping, dining, drinking, demonstrating, you name it — give the virus more opportunities to spread. And the numbers show it, whatever your politics. This is getting worse, and the easiest way to slow it down, short of closing everything down again, is for more Texans to do the simple things: distance, handwashing and masks.
Public school students in Texas will return to campus this fall, which is great and also a little bit scary, for any number of reasons. It could get the kids back on track after they effectively missed most of the spring semester. More kids in school frees parents to go back to work — a practical expansion of the number of people who can leave home and get back to the workplaces some left in the early days of the pandemic.
And it potentially exposes students, teachers and everyone else in the schools to a virus that loves crowds. It puts more people together in workplaces. It puts things closer to the way they were in early March — which was enough at the time to get leaders of almost every stripe to tell us to go home and stay there for a while.
The mask thing has confounded the governor, whose confusion has infected everyone from state to local officials trying to figure out why Greg Abbott is telling them they should wear masks but that it’s really up to them as liberty-loving Texans. He’s like a dad trying to tell the kids not to drink, while also saying they’re free to do whatever they want.
That’s dangerous, so Abbott figured out a way to let local governments tell people to wear masks, sort of. Local governments can’t make individuals wear masks by threatening them with legal action of any kind. But they can tell businesses and other establishments not to allow customers or employees on the premises if they’re not wearing masks. And those businesses can be fined.
That’s a governor-sanctioned non-sanction. The government won’t make you wear a mask, but the Sunny Acres Shopping Mall can, and so can your local grocer.
That got Abbott out of trouble for a minute. He’s wearing a mask, telling others to wear masks, and telling local governments how to put some muscle into mask requirements, in a roundabout way.
Local governments are signing up. We’ll get some tests soon, as Texans run into the practical issues. Not all businesses are going to want to enforce what amount to government rules. Some will be in odd positions.
Here’s a made-up example: The Houston First Corp. is a local government corporation, created to run public buildings for the city of Houston. One of those is the George R. Brown Convention Center. Does Abbott’s workaround mean that groups meeting in that convention center will have to wear masks or be fined?
One of those groups — since this is just a thought experiment — is the upcoming state convention of the Republican Party of Texas in mid-July. Want to wager on the number of delegates who would take you up on patriotic facewear, and the number who would tell you where to put it?
Maybe we need a revised Gadsden Flag — the yellow one with the coiled snake and the “Don’t tread on me” slogan. We could put a mask on the snake and change one word: “Don’t breathe on me.”
Maybe that’s too cute for you. Try this: “Keep Texas open. Put on your damn mask.”
Just for a while. Until this war on COVID is over.
Disclosure: Houston First Corp. has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.