Where is Texas's Predicted Spike in COVID Cases?

Believing in science means believing in intellectual humility.

On March 2nd, Texas’s Republican Governor Greg Abbott announced that he would be ending the state’s mask mandate on March 10th while allowing businesses to operate a full capacity (with some limitations, like if hospitals see a surge of COVID-19 patients).

This move provoked an avalanche of doomsaying. Here are a few examples:

  • President Joe Biden: Biden called the move a “big mistake” and implied that it was “Neanderthal thinking.”

  • MSNBC Anchor Chris Hayes: Hayes found Abbot’s decision “disturbing.” He warned that “there is no upside to repealing a mask mandate at this point in the pandemic.”

  • Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa: Hinojosa declared that “Governor Abbot has lost his mind by doing this.”

  • CNN Analyst Chris Cillizza: Cillizza penned a column about Abbot’s move calling it a “head-scratching, anti-science decision.”

I could list many more examples, but this was a representative sample of media figures and politicians. There was widespread agreement that the mask mandate was essential to keeping COVID-19 cases down and that lifting this mandate would have disastrous consequences for the state.

We’re now a little more than a month out from when the mandate has lifted. Here’s what’s happened to COVID-19 cases in Texas:

As you can see, there was no boom in COVID-19 cases. Of course, we won’t know the exact impact of the mandate until it’s more rigorously studied. But here’s some food for thought.

Abbott’s plan for reopening did not prohibit businesses from requiring masks. If you go to your average place of business in Texas today, you’re likely to continue to see a polite request that you don a mask indoors. Abbott’s plan did lift the mandate to require masks in certain outdoor settings.

It’s unlikely that this latter mandate was being enforced very much at all. This local news story from November 2020 noted that “more than three months have passed since Houston's mask enforcement started, and despite rising coronavirus cases, ABC13 has learned there's been no documented enforcement.”

My guess is that Abbott’s executive order repealing his prior executive order that mandated masks really didn’t do that much to change the public’s health-related behaviors in Texas. With vaccines rapidly rolling out, the good news is that deaths from COVID-19 are way down:

The lesson from all this is that if you say you believe in science, you have to remember that it’s a process, not a set of facts. It’s very hard to predict the trajectory of a virus, and we don’t know exactly what every government edict will do or won’t do when it comes to containing one. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t critically examine public health policy — both policy that is more restrictive and less restrictive — but we should probably be more nuanced in the way we cover these things. Otherwise, you might make the mistake of thinking that the Peach State is re-enacting a scene from Indiana Jones.