Mask mandates, metropolitan crisis, and municipal retaliation: Governor Greg Abbott’s controversial COVID-19 executive order

On July 29th, 2021, Governor Greg Abbott issued Executive Order GA-38 that prohibited mask mandates by public institutions, including schools. This policy reinforced his previous order from March that ended the statewide mask mandate and reopened all Texas businesses unconditionally. In March, his decision accompanied the CDC’s then announcement that vaccinated individuals were no longer recommended to wear a mask; however, with the rise of the Delta variant in Texas, his policies have drawn much more scrutiny.

As of August 17th, 2021, the Greater Houston Area has seen daily rates of 3,008 hospitalizations – the highest levels since the start of the pandemic. And despite being home to the Texas Medical Center – the largest medical center in the world – only 44 regular ICU beds are available within the Houston Trauma Service Area, which encompasses nearly 7 million people. In fact, within the state of Texas as a whole, the DSHS reports that there are 372 available ICU beds (August 22nd, 3:25 PM CDT).

With multiple school districts opening or soon to open, the inability to enforce mask mandates has created conflict between local governments and the state as they try to mitigate the harms from the resurging pandemic. Various school districts, such as Austin, Houston, and Dallas ISD, have incurred the $1,000 fine by imposing mask mandates within their jurisdictions. Seeing as cases are surging in these metropolitan areas, district leaders found it best to ignore Abbott’s orders and set their own policies.

Aside from districts themselves, local leaders and politicians have fought back against statewide restrictions. Before filing for a temporary restraining order against Abbott’s executive order, the city of San Antonio and Bexar County sued the governor on the grounds that GA-38 gets in the way of their local jurisdictions. In a parallel move, Judge Lina Hidalgo in Harris County filed a similar restraining order to be allowed to impose mandates in Houston-area schools. On August 13th, a Travis County judge ruled in favor of Hidalgo’s request to prevent Abbott’s ban. Ultimately, the issue was brought before the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the various counties and districts by leaving the restraining order in place, thereby temporarily halting the enforcement of the mask mandate restrictions.

Greg Abbott will be standing for re-election during the 2022 Texas Gubernatorial Race. While he has seen great popularity throughout his term, the Texas Politics Project hosted by the University of Texas at Austin found that, for the first time, his disapproval rate has been marginally higher than his approval rate between the months of March and June 2021. While this may be due to reasons other than lifting COVID-19 restrictions (such as his support for legislation that restricts local efforts expanding voter access and signing bills that prevent teachings of Critical Race Theory), this race is all the more important since it can drastically influence the future of the ever-changing political landscape in Texas. 

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