Courtesy Photo / Office of the Governor
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a press event.
In a move likely to further politicize the pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order
Tuesday mandating that no government entity in Texas, including public schools, can require people to wear masks.
Starting Friday, cities and counties that try to maintain mask mandates can be slapped with fines of up to $1,000. Public schools have until June 4 until their ability to impose such rules disappear.
Under the Republican governor's order, public schools can't require students, teachers, parents or staffers to wear masks on campus.
In a statement, Abbott said wide vaccine availability means Texans should be on their own to decide whether to wear face coverings. "We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans’ liberty to choose whether or not they mask up,” he said evoking the L-word popular on his party's right flank.
"My initial reaction is that to hand down a statewide mandate that applies everywhere at once and that applies so soon is an overreach," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
Other states have made similar moves, Jillson said, but they have set dates further in the future or staggered them to account for differing infection and vaccination rates among their municipalities.
The only exemptions in Abbott's order are state-supported living centers, government-owned or operated hospitals, prisons and jails.
Despite Abbott's insistence in his statement that the state "continues to defeat COVID-19," just 30% of Texans have been fully vaccinated. What's more, the overwhelming majority of children remain unvaccinated, and only the Pfizer vaccine has so far been authorized for those between the ages of 12 and 15.
"The governor should have waited until the [Centers for Disease Control] issues new mask guidelines for the 2021-22 school year before acting on masking requirements in public schools," Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in an email statement.
"We know some school districts already have ended their mask mandates, and we believe that also is ill-advised. The health and safety of our students, educators and communities must remain our first priority as we attempt to emerge from this pandemic."
Abbott has faced criticism both from the state's large Democrat-controlled cities and from the hard right for his litany of top-down executive orders during the pandemic.
San Antonio, Bexar County and other large municipalities have pushed back at the governor for preventing them from creating their own public health policies on how best deal with COVID.
Meanwhile, he's faced blowback from other Republicans for imposing a statewide mandate last summer amid skyrocketing deaths and for taking too long to lift business restrictions.
While local control has long been a hallmark of the Texas Republican Party platform, Jillson said that's ceased to be as the state's largest cities came under Democratic leadership over the past 15 years or so.
"Republicans have given up on the idea that local government knows best in many ways," Jillson said. "And they've done it for ideological reasons."
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