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What's behind Texas governor's 'Neanderthal thinking'?

Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNN

Updated: Thu, 04 Mar 2021 01:01:36 GMT

Source: CNN

"Neanderthal thinking" was President Joe Biden's unusually direct description of the decision by governors in Texas and Mississippi to prematurely end mask restrictions.

The moves by the Republicans, Govs. Greg Abbott in Texas and Tate Reeves in Mississippi, came the day after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director pleaded with Americans and policymakers not to let up as infection rates fall and vaccination rates rise. 

"I hope everybody's realized by now, these masks make a difference. We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we're able to get vaccines in people's arms," Biden said when asked about the decisions by Abbott and Reeves.

"The last thing -- the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything's fine, take off your mask, forget it. It still matters," Biden told reporters Wednesday in the Oval Office.

What Abbott really meant was: An Abbott spokeswoman clarified Wednesday that the governor was not saying, by ending the mask mandate, that Texans should not wear masks.

"The Governor was clear in telling Texans that COVID hasn't ended," his spokeswoman said.

"We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans."

What medical advice did Abbott get? The truth may be more political maneuvering than Neanderthal thinking, which is more sinister. There are smart people in Texas who know better. The governor just didn't talk to them. That Abbott, still reeling from the power and water shortages that called his leadership into question last week, reportedly didn't consult his state's chief medical officer before ending the mask mandate makes it hard to see the decision as anything but political.

Let their people go. Sen. John Cornyn rejected Biden's criticism and said Texans are ready to throw off the yoke of government intervention, if mask mandates can be considered onerous.

"At some point, the government needs to quit making arbitrary rules that do not have any demonstrable connection with the public health," the Texas Republican said.

Dude. Arbitrary? Recent CDC data suggests the most effective masking is double masking, or knotted masking, not optional masking. Here's their mask guidance. Read it. 

The list of people and corporations disagreeing with the end of mask mandates is long.

Don't leave your mask at home yet. As CNN Business reports, masks won't exactly be going away.

"Leading US grocery chains, pharmacies, retailers and auto manufacturers, including Target (TGT), Kroger (KR), CVS (CVS), Walgreens (WBA), Best Buy (BBY), Macy's (M) JCPenney (JCP), Toyota (TM), GM (GM) and others, say they will continue to require mask wearing at their stores and facilities by both employees and customers."

"There are exceptions, however, and some business advocates are concerned that the end of these states' mask mandates will create new challenges for companies and their workers."

Where is the middle ground?

Opening too soon. While it's easy to roll your eye at Abbott ending all restrictions and allowing businesses to open at will, it's also completely legitimate to wonder where the right place is.

Texas will allow all businesses of any type to open 100%. In many other places in the country, any sort of indoor dining and exercise is prohibited.

Taking so long to open. In my neighborhood in Virginia, parents are looking at the possibility of sending their kids to in-person public school for the first time in a year after the governor issued an order requiring schools to open by March 15. Arizona's governor issued a similar order Wednesday.

The details border on farce. It appears my two elementary schoolers will go to school two days a week, but they'll be getting virtual instruction there either from teachers not returning in person or teachers in different rooms.

My middle schooler's teachers are split in half between those returning and those staying virtual. He may get some in-person instruction, but since the school district is hewing strictly to the CDC's guidance on 6 feet of separation for children, he may be getting instruction from a teacher streaming from a different room in the school. 

It won't be the grand return to school any of the 40% of students who opted for in-person instruction might have envisioned. 

Vaccine priorities. Virginia has been vaccinating teachers for weeks, although many in our district are not returning. I was flabbergasted to see Wednesday that Texas announced it would prioritize teachers only after the governor announced the end of restrictions on businesses.

Texas reality vs. Virginia reality. I went to CNN's superstar Dallas-based national correspondent Ed Lavandera to ask not only about Abbott's move, but also what he's seen in his travels this year. Our conversation is below.

Shifting the burden for safety away from the government

WHAT MATTERS: What's going to be the practical effect of this order by Gov. Abbott on Texans and Texas businesses?

LAVANDERA: The governor's executive order ends all the restrictions and operating limits placed on businesses during the coronavirus pandemic starting on Wednesday, March 10.

Gov. Greg Abbott is essentially shifting the burden and responsibility of enforcing medical guidelines over social distancing and mask wearing.

Businesses will now be allowed to operate at full capacity but can still require employees and customers to follow public health safety measures, like mask wearing. 

The governor has made clear in the last year that local jurisdictions at the county and city level do not have the authority to issue stricter public health measures, which has caused tension between many city leaders and the governor. However, the latest executive order does say counties can tighten business restrictions, in a limited capacity, if the hospitalization rate reaches a specific threshold. (If the number of Covid-19 patients in a hospital region reaches more than 15% of total capacity for seven straight days, then the restrictions can be implemented.)

A big question mark moving forward is how will the public respond? When Abbott started reopening the state last spring and issued the mask mandate last summer, there was great confusion over enforcement and many businesses were put in a tough place. We'll be watching closely to see how businesses that choose to require masks will deal with customers who refuse to wear them.

Texas cities vs. red Texas

WHAT MATTERS: The view from here in Washington is that Texas is a state rapidly changing from deep red to purple. Do those changes factor into how Texans have viewed Covid restrictions and mask requirements?

LAVANDERA: The pandemic has exposed the growing divide between the Democratic leadership in the most populated cities in Texas (Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin) and the conservative Republican officials fully in control of state government.

Texas is a rapidly growing state that's seen its population explode to roughly 29 million. The myth is that these new transplants are making the state more liberal, but in my conversations with political observers that's a questionable theory. It's not a purple state, yet.  

When you drive around the state, as I have extensively for the last year, there is a clear divide in how politics has clouded perceptions of the medical guidelines during this pandemic. Gov. Abbott is leaning heavily into the idea that government should not be telling businesses and people how to do things. That sentiment plays well with a large segment of the population.

The governor said during the reopening announcement that "Texans have mastered the daily habits to avoid getting Covid." That's quite a statement in a state that has seen 2.6 million cases and 44,000 deaths. But the governor's decision has left many local leaders, especially in the state's biggest cities, dumbfounded by his push to ease pandemic restrictions so soon.

The old rule of Texas politics applied to Covid

WHAT MATTERS: There are reports Abbott didn't consult all of his medical advisers, which only amplifies the feeling that this is a political decision by a governor already struggling after the power and water fiasco. 

LAVANDERA: The way Gov. Abbott rolled out this decision is a revealing window into the political forces at play. Instead of calling a news conference in Austin and taking questions from reporters on the intricacies of how this reopening would roll out, Gov. Abbott announced the reopening of the Texas economy at a restaurant in the West Texas town of Lubbock surrounded by a political friendly crowd. He took no questions.

Gov. Abbott faces a difficult political reality. On the left, Democrats have been inspired by big gains at the local level and the surprising performance by Beto O'Rourke in the 2018 Senate race against Ted Cruz. (Although that excitement has been tempered to some extent by Donald Trump's performance in the 2020 presidential election.)

Those big city leaders have pushed for more government-led efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus. And on the right, Gov. Abbott has received a great deal of heat and pushback from the most right-wing, Trump-like elements of the Republican Party in Texas. These are the conservative voices that have opposed the governor's pandemic restrictions on businesses and lampooned mask wearing. Gov. Abbott finds himself in the middle of those political winds and there is talk that a more conservative figure could challenge him in the 2022 gubernatorial primary. An old Texas progressive activist named Jim Hightower once wrote, "There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos." No politician wants to be the armadillo.

What else?

We won't know the toll these restrictions will have on US communities for some time. States are looking at extreme revenue shortfalls, which could affect funding for schools, roads and all sorts of projects for years.

The first year of the pandemic was not as devastating on state coffers as expected, probably because of federal aid to businesses and the unemployed.

Now Democrats want to keep the spigot of federal money running, although what they can pass through the Senate remains very much in question. Republicans, now in the minority at the federal level, are looking to move on from Covid. 

Fewer will get checks with Senate bill. Democrats in the Senate and the White House have agreed to a more narrowly targeted set of stimulus checks and will cut out couples making more than $160,000 and individuals making more than $80,000 per year. Those additional families would have gotten partial payments under the House plan.

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