In April 2020, an optimistic Gov. Greg Abbott announced at the Texas Capitol that he would soon take initial steps to allow businesses to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.
The loosening of restrictions, his team said, would be informed by a statewide “strike force,” composed of business leaders and four medical experts who would advise the governor on a safe, phased plan.
“Every recommendation, every action by the governor will be informed and based on hard data and the expertise of our chief medical advisers,” James Huffines, a former bank executive whom Abbott named as chair of the strike force, said at the time. “Everything we do will be medically sound. These nationally recognized advisers are leading experts in their fields, and we will rely on their knowledge and expertise every step of the way.”
Since then, Texas has suffered through two major case surges and thousands of deaths. Abbott imposed a mask order in July, and vaccine distribution has begun to give residents a reason for hope. On Tuesday, Abbott made waves again by announcing the repeal of his mask order and declaring that “it is now time to open Texas 100%.”
This time, however, Abbott’s team of medical advisers appeared to play a minimal role in the decision. Three of the four said Wednesday that Abbott did not directly consult with them prior to the drastic shift in policy. The fourth said he couldn’t say whether the move was a good idea.
One such adviser expressed overt reservations about the move.
“I don’t think this is the right time,” Dr. Mark McClellan, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, said in a statement. “Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.”
McClellan said that he was “not consulted before the announcement.”
Dr. Parker Hudson, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School, likewise told The Texas Tribune that he was “not involved with the decision” but didn’t comment on whether he thought it was a good idea.
Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the state Department of State Health Services, also said he didn’t have a direct conversation with Abbott prior to the announcement, though he did say he spoke with the governor’s team. Hellerstedt told a panel of state House members Wednesday afternoon that he and Abbott were on the same page. He said the governor’s decision did not diminish safety.
“I think the difference is, should you wear a mask? The answer is absolutely yes,” Hellerstedt told the House Public Health Committee. “Does the governor want folks to wear a mask and to take their own personal responsibility to do it? The answer, I believe, is yes."
The one expert on the team who did speak with Abbott was Dr. John Zerwas, an executive vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System and a former Republican state representative. Zerwas said to the Tribune that he told Abbott he couldn’t say whether now was the right time to remove pandemic restrictions. But he advised Abbott that if he did rescind those restrictions, Abbott, “in the same breath,” should “continue to emphasize the importance of the public health measures that have allowed us to continue to really kind of get past this pandemic.”
“And I believe he did that,” Zerwas said.
Abbott’s order makes Texas the largest state in the country without a mask mandate. It allows businesses, including restaurants, bars, retail stores and sports venues, to operate at 100% capacity. The move goes against the guidance of most medical experts, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think we at the CDC have been very clear that now is not the time to release all restrictions,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said of the decision.
Renae Eze, a spokesperson for Abbott, said in a statement that “the Governor speaks regularly with Dr. Hellerstedt and Dr. Zerwas, along with others in the medical community, regarding yesterday’s announcement. All were in agreement that Texans should continue following medical advice and safe standards on preventing COVID-19 to protect themselves and their loved ones, just like they do on other medical issues.”
Democrats lashed out, calling Tuesday’s announcement dangerously premature and saying they were worried it would lead to a dangerous rise in cases. State Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, tweeted that the virus has already taken a disproportionate toll on Black Texans and that Abbott had “signed the death warrants of communities of color.”
Many hardliners in Abbott’s party, including Texas GOP Chair Allen West, have called on Abbott for weeks to end coronavirus restrictions.
Some state business leaders expressed support Wednesday. The Texas Restaurant Association thanked Abbott for “outlining a plan today that will lift costly business restrictions for most of the state where we are seeing significant improvement in our COVID-19 case, hospitalization and vaccination numbers.”
Disclosure: James Huffines, the Texas Restaurant Association, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas System have been financial supporters 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.
Correction, March 3, 2021: Due to an editing mistake, an earlier version of this story incorrectly described James Huffines as a lobbyist. Huffines is a former bank executive who served two stints as chair of the University of Texas System Board of Regents.