Gov. Abbott’s misguided decision on masks

Public service is a privilege, not a right. To serve at the highest levels of leadership in Texas state government, or in the federal government, carries with it the responsibility to act for the health, safety and welfare of the public.

Sadly, last week, Governor Greg Abbott failed in fulfilling his responsibility to protect the citizens from the coronavirus epidemic when he ordered the end of Texas’ mask mandate. The governor also erred by prematurely authorizing all businesses to reopen at 100% without restrictions.

The Houston Chronicle, in a searing editorial, minced no words in its headline above an incisive editorial: “Ending COVID restrictions, Abbott plays politics with Texans’ lives.”

As he announced issuance of his ukase ending COVID restrictions, Abbott provided his rationale for doing so.

“It is clear from the recoveries, from the vaccinations, from the reduced hospitalizations and from the safe practices that Texans are using, that mandates are no longer needed,” he told a Lubbock audience.

Though he ended the statewide mask requirement, he suggested that individual Texans are shouldered with the responsibility of keeping the Lone Star State safe for the remainder of the pandemic.

“Removing state mandates does not end personal responsibility when it comes to caring for family, friends, and the community,” said a statement released by his press secretary.

Regrettably, the governor did not consult with Texas’ leading medical experts on the coronavirus before making his decision, though it would have been easy for him to avail himself of some of America’s best epidemiologists who live in Houston and work in the Texas Medical Center.

Dr. Peter Hotez serves as dean of the National School of Tropical Health at Baylor College of Medicine. Before the governor lifted the mask mandate, Dr. Hotez cautioned that it should remain.

“We’re finally starting to accelerate vaccinations,” Dr. Hotez told the Chronicle. “I would recommend holding off on the restrictions until we really gear up and vaccinate a higher percentage of the population.”

“This is definitely not the time to be doing this,” Dr. Hotez told MSNBC. “We are all anticipating another major wave,” he said.

The New York Times’ tabulation of Texas’ coronavirus statistics depicted a bleak picture of our state’s progress in vaccinating its population of approximately 29 million Texans. The Times’ statistics reflect that as of last Monday, approximately 15.2% of the state’s population has had one dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, and 8.2% have been inoculated with two doses of a vaccine. Millions of Texans remain to be vaccinated.

President Joe Biden recently visited Houston to learn how the nation’s fifth largest city is coping with the virus. The president called Abbott’s decision a “big mistake.” “Masks make a difference,” he added.

“The last thing you need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything is fine, take off your mask,” said the president. “It’s critical that we follow the science. Wear a mask and stay socially distanced.”

Abbott has been harshly criticized.

“The rush to be the first state to lift their mask mandate, to be the first state to open 100%, feels to me like it’s less motivated by public health and science and more motivated on grabbing headlines and attention,” said State Representative James Talarico (D-Williamson).

In his capacity as governor of Texas, Abbott is vested with broad powers during an epidemic under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975. During emergencies, the law provides that the governor may issue executive orders, proclamations and regulations that have the full force and effect of Texas law. The governor has the power to suspend provisions of state laws regulating how the state does business and may order a state agency to comply with his mandates.

Before the coronavirus outbreak in January 2020, America’s last experience with such a vast epidemic was the great influenza outbreak that began in 1918. As John M. Barry recounts in his brilliant history of that time, “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History,” a conservative estimate of people who died in that debacle is 50 million. Correlating the death toll from the 1918 epidemic equates to 150 million deaths today.

As Barry’s book notes, an individual city or state’s decision to ignore health risks can yield devastating consequences.

A Liberty Bond Parade was held in Philadelphia on Sept. 28, 1918, over the objections of doctors, scientists and public health experts. Despite warnings, Dr. Wilmer Krusen, head of Philadelphia’s Department of Health and Public Charities, authorized an event without restrictions. The parade was over 2 miles long. Several hundred thousand Philadelphians attended. 

Within days of the event, the city’s hospitals were overwhelmed with the stricken. By Oct. 5 of that year, the flu had infected approximately 75,000 citizens. In the single week ending on Oct. 19, 1918, 4,597 Philadelphians died from the outbreak. History teaches us that viruses are cunning in their capacity to fell even the healthy. Now, as vaccines are being distributed, the nation and world’s best scientists are wrestling with how to combat mutations and variations of the coronavirus.

In Judaism, the preservation of life supersedes all other religious commandments.

The Talmud references Leviticus 18:5 when it states: “You shall therefore keep my statutes…which if a man do, he shall live by them.” The great rabbis taught that the teaching should include “That you shall live by them, and not that he shall die by them.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b)

As Jews, we are commanded to disregard a law that conflicts with life or health. “It is a religious precept to desecrate the Sabbath for any person afflicted with an illness that may prove dangerous; he who is zealous is praiseworthy while he who asks no questions sheds blood.” (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 328:2)

Civil authorities like Governor Abbott may deign to relax safeguards for the public’s health. As individuals, each of us has the power to use the greatest care as we live our lives, which are gifts from Hashem. 

Let us proudly wear our masks, practice social distancing, regularly wash our hands and take pride and in protecting ourselves, our families and our communities. We need not follow the governor’s unwise policies. We can and must do better. America and Texas have made great strides in the struggle with the coronavirus. The battle remains to be won.

A version of this editorial appeared in the March 11, 2021, edition of the Jewish Herald-Voice in Houston. Reprinted with permission.

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