With fight for mask mandates, Gov. Abbott passes Trump’s GOP purity test

When Texas experienced its first big wave of COVID hospitalizations, Governor Greg Abbott responded by shutting down bars and making masks mandatory.

When the second wave hit, Abbott set up an automatic trigger to restrict businesses’ operating capabilities and shut down elective surgeries to free up hospital beds in areas with high hospitalization.

But now that the state is reaching a third wave, Abbott – who faces re-election early next year – is doing none of the above. Instead, he suggests that people wear masks where appropriate and get vaccinated, but only if they wish, and vowing not to issue any more warrants.

“There is no more time for government mandates,” Abbott said last month in an interview with KPRC in Houston. “It’s time for individual responsibility.”

While it has baffled health officials and many big city leaders as hospitals fill up with COVID-19 patients, the election results for 2020 offer insight into why Abbott, who has been tested positive for the virus this week, is not about to change course.

Analysis from Hearst Newspapers shows a strong correlation between counties with the lowest vaccination rates for COVID-19 and counties that voted overwhelmingly for former President Donald Trump, whose Abbott supporters are set to win his primary next spring .

Trump won 80% or more of the vote in each of Texas’ 10 counties with the lowest vaccination rates.

No county demonstrates this reluctance to vaccinate better than King County (population 300) near the Texas Panhandle. President Joe Biden won just 5% of the vote in a county that had vaccinated just 17% of people 12 and older – the worst in the state, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

On the flip side, the counties with the highest vaccination rates in Texas have almost all gone overwhelmingly to Biden, led by Presidio County on the West Texas border. More than 90 percent of the county’s 6,700 residents are fully immunized. Biden won 66% of the vote.

All of this means that Abbott – facing two main GOP opponents who have sharply criticized his business closures and mask orders at the start of the pandemic – has little political incentive to impose further restrictions on postal voting. starting in mid-January.

“These voters are done with their terms,” ​​said State Senator Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston.

And the lack of warrants doesn’t mean people won’t get vaccinated or wear masks, Bettencourt said, but Republicans in Texas are tired of being told how to protect themselves.

“Whatever the next term, the answer is already no,” he said.

‘It does not work’

Instead of demanding masks or shutting down businesses, Abbott has asked hospitals to consider postponing non-life-saving surgeries to free up beds for COVID patients and ordered the Texas Division of Emergency Management to open centers infusion sets that can treat coronavirus patients to keep them out of the hospital.

He also took steps to bring in 5,500 medical staff from other states to support Texas hospitals short.

“The State of Texas is taking action to combat the recent increase in COVID-19 cases and ensure our hospitals and communities have the resources and support they need to mitigate the virus,” Abbott said .

But Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo pleaded with Abbott and heads of state to give local governments the power to put in place warrants that held back the last two big pushes.

“Personal responsibility is great, but as a disaster response strategy it doesn’t work,” Hidalgo said last week as the number of COVID hit a 7-month high. This is Houston’s fourth wave.

As for his own COVID infection, Abbott released a video update on Thursday on his condition in which he appeared to be showing no symptoms. He said he continued to self-quarantine and that his wife, Cecilia, continued to test negative.

But Abbott’s message hasn’t changed: the new mandates are non-negotiable.

“Going forward in Texas there will be no government-imposed closures or mask warrants,” Abbott said earlier this month in Dallas. “Everyone already knows what to do.

Abbott’s position has eroded one of his main political commitments until 2022, which could be his first main challenge since taking office at the state level in 1995 as Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas. Abbott has not been seriously challenged in a primary in his previous two gubernatorial campaigns and has never faced a main opponent in three elections for attorney general, the post he held prior to joining. become governor.

His opponents, former Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West and former State Senator Don Huffines have both tried to appeal to GOP voters by targeting Abbott for his previous mask restrictions and promising to s ‘oppose other warrants – the very message Abbott has sent since March.

“Abbott’s mask position sucked oxygen out of the room for these guys,” Bettencourt said.

Still, the challengers aren’t giving up.

“If you don’t want to wear a mask, you shouldn’t have to wear a mask,” West, a Republican from Garland, told supporters on a video conference Wednesday. “We are meant to be ruled, not ruled by edicts, warrants, orders and decrees.”

Huffines, another main opponent, also continues to stress mask requirements, accusing Abbott of failing to do more to stop school districts that defy Abbott’s orders by forcing students to wear masks.

“While Greg Abbott brags about banning mask warrants in Texas, the largest and most populous counties in the state are forcing them on citizens,” Huffines said.

Beto O’Rourke also embarks on the mask fight

Internal polls from the Abbott campaign show he is closely monitoring his numbers, especially those related to COVID and the border.

A public poll shows that 85% of Republican voters in Texas approve of Abbott’s handling of the state’s response to the virus, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in late June. This poll also showed that while 51% of all Texans think schools should be able to require masks, only 21% of Republicans agree. And there is a huge gap depending on where people live. Almost 60% of respondents in cities supported schools requiring masks; in rural Texas, it’s less than 40 percent.

Bettencourt acknowledged that Abbott may be in danger of attack in the general election, but the issue under consideration right now is the main one.

Former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke has not announced whether he is running for governor, but the Democrat has asked national television about Abbott’s leadership and criticized him on social media for not doing more to protect Texans.

“Gov. Abbott, it is high time to act to protect the lives of Texans, especially children, ”O’Rourke said earlier this week., echoing President Joe Biden’s recent criticisms of Abbott. “Lead or dismiss county judges, mayors and school boards who are ready to do the right thing. “

But one political reality remains in Texas: Democrats haven’t won a governor’s race for over 30 years. The biggest concern among incumbent Republicans in Texas remains the main challengers, not the Democrats.

This is exactly the kind of politics that frustrates State Senator Carol Alvarado, D-Houston. Standing in the East End of Houston, she said Abbott made a lot of good decisions last year, but now appears to want to prevent communities like hers from taking action to stop the spread of the disease.

Alvarado said it almost seems like Abbott is trying to follow Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a battle over who can do the least at a time when the public needs them to step up. Like Abbott, DeSantis is battling local school districts that are trying to impose mask warrants despite his objections.

“Now he’s in this competition with DeSantis and it’s almost like ‘who can be the freest’,” Alvarado said. “I think he needs to become responsive again as he was back then.”

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