AUSTIN — In May, during that blissful window when rising vaccine numbers made things seem almost normal, I visited family in Connecticut. One afternoon, we took a tour of places that marked the area’s participation in the slave trade, part of an educational project centered on undoing the popular myth that the Northeast was filled with nothing but morally superior upstanding abolitionists. All of us found it fascinating and important, but the leader of the tour kept addressing me when he spoke. His eyes found mine whenever he talked about the role of the South. He seemed oddly defensive when I asked a question. At some point, my aunt buttonholed me to explain in a whisper, “I’m so sorry, I told him you were from Texas, but I didn’t say Austin.”
Austinites have been at pains to stand out from the rest of Texas for decades, painting ourselves as the tie-dyed splotch of blue in an otherwise broad red swath. One friend of mine used to tell people that Austin was a little like West Berlin in the East Germany days.
I still believe Austin is different than the rest of Texas, but covid-19 leveled the state in more ways than one. The pandemic hit Austin with as much force as any place else in the state; at times, we had it worse. And now, as the delta variant fills hospitals to capacity and strains health-care providers to the limit, the city is bound — just like the rest of the state — from taking the most obvious steps to fight it.
On July 29, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued an executive order banning local governments as well as any entity subsidized by the state from mandating that masks be worn inside. This applies to obvious places like city courthouses and museums, but also to less obvious beneficiaries of state largesse, like crowded outdoor spaces such as Austin’s brand-new soccer stadium. More urgently, the ban on mask mandates also applies to the schools about to host millions of children for hours and hours each day.
There was immediate pushback from local school districts in the places where politics has not deterred officials from treating the coronavirus as an active threat, which it is. Most of the state’s urban districts, including Austin, put out statements that they would require masks regardless. Abbott responded by invoking “parental rights” and declaring, “The time for mask mandates is over; now is the time for personal responsibility.”
On Wednesday, the mayor of Austin, Steve Adler (D), and the executive officer of Travis County (which encompasses the capital) announced they would stand with the local school district in requiring masks. They will also defy the governor in mandating masks in county and city buildings.
After the Austin announcement, Abbott tweeted, “Any school district, public university, or local official that decides to defy GA-38 — which prohibits gov’t entities from mandating masks — will be taken to court.”
We’ll see if Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) make good on that “any.” Nearly all the big cities in Texas are about as blue as we are now. But he is almost certainly going to go after Austin. “The governor and the attorney general love to sue Austin and they love to sue Travis County,” Andy Brown (D), the Travis County judge — basically a county chief executive — told me. “Even when the science and our local community supports us.”
To Brown and Adler, mask measures aren’t precautionary. The time to head off the current surge in Texas has passed; they (and other city officials) are just trying to keep the tragedy from metastasizing further. Covid-19 hospitalization rates in the state are higher than they were when Abbott did issue a statewide mask mandate in July 2020. Indeed, 87.1 percent of all hospital beds across the state are in use — the same as at the height of the pandemic. Out of 5,788 ICU beds in Texas, only 394 are available. In the entire Austin medical service area, which stretches across 11 counties and serves a population of 2.2 million people, the number of ICU beds available, as of Monday: two.
Abbott has repeatedly used the pandemic as an excuse for performative “personal responsibility” rhetoric. He was formally censured by the Republican committees of eight counties for ordering masks last year (he rescinded the order in March), but he quickly found other opportunities to portray himself as a defender of those who claim that health-related orders are an infringement on their rights. It did not matter that the authorities imposing those orders were the duly elected representatives of the local population; in fact, that seems to be the point.
In December, when Travis Country declared that bars and restaurants had to close by 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve to help contain the opportunities for the virus to spread, Abbott and Paxton filed a suit fighting for the right to party (and encouraged diners to defy the order no matter what the court ruled). When Travis County responded to Abbott’s lifting of statewide covid restrictions by requiring city and county businesses to continue following the stricter guidance of local officials, they sued again.
We who live here see the city slogan — “Keep Austin weird” — as a manifesto. Conservative politicians such as Abbott and Paxton see it as an exclusionary command: Keep the weird in Austin, and only in Austin. We are a convenient placeholder in the culture wars, a metro area that red Texas imagines to be populated with nothing but childless cat ladies and emo soy boys, Critical Race Theory instructors and bakers of cakes for same-sex marriages. We allow people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity and have a city park designated as clothing optional. (Those last two things are true.) And I already told you about the soccer stadium.
So, of course, Paxton and Abbott’s Fox News-friendly campaign against Austin extends beyond pandemic matters. The state has also sued Austin over banning guns in city hall, over its attempts to regulate Airbnb-style rentals and over who can serve on the city planning commission. Abbott has even accused the city of having a particular odor, not what you might sniff over by Willie Nelson’s house but rather: “When you leave Austin and start heading north … it starts smelling different. And you know what that fragrance is? Freedom! It’s the smell of freedom that does not exist in Austin, Texas.”
That’s a lot of micromanaging for a state that has already gone after the Biden administration eight times insisting on its right to make and enforce its own laws without federal interference. (To be fair, Texas attorneys general have a nonpartisan loathing for federal interference: The state has filed suit against the feds about six times a year since 2008; under the Trump administration, they started winning a lot more of them.) But pointing out hypocrisy will do nothing to rein in the Republicans’ anti-Austin crusade. Ideological consistency isn’t important to Paxton or Abbott or any of the other new-model “conservatives” who have abandoned all pretenses to caring about local control. For Paxton and Abbott, “suing Austin” is just Texan for “owning the libs.”
And often, that litigation amounts to empty measures without any real-world impact. The local business mask mandate has been upheld by a district judge. The Texas State Supreme Court did eventually agree to overturn the New Year’s Eve business shutdown order — in a decision announced on New Year’s Day.
Those losses are probably just fine with Paxton and Abbott, though; a lot of the time they can count on the headlines to do the dirty work for them. Headlines generate fundraising and the loyalty of primary voters. And in the case of covid restrictions, the work is more literally unclean: Each time the state government relaxes its guidelines, it’s sending another message that the virus should not be our biggest worry.
But we see with our own eyes that you can’t gerrymander a disease. To keep the virus from jumping from red areas to blue, you’d need a physical barrier and impose strict travel prohibitions. I don’t know, maybe build a wall.
And all those blue bits of the state, where citizens have elected local officials who want to mitigate the spread of the virus? Those are the places where the ICU beds are. In fact, 91 percent of the state’s total 80,000 beds are in metro centers. Tragically, Texas leads the nation in the number of counties with no ICU beds (166 out of 264) and in the number of rural hospital closures. One-third of Texas counties have no hospital, period. Those unserved counties are in the deep red parts of Texas, where vaccination rates hover around 30 percent. The people in those counties voted overwhelmingly for Abbott and Paxton; they may be even more genuine in their distaste for Austin and all it stands for.
My sincere hope is that they never have to visit anytime soon.