Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued an executive order banning all entities — including private businesses — from implementing vaccine mandates. This was just the latest in a string of legal moves he and his administration have made to block Texas institutions, public and private, from enforcing the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health experts.
I am as pro-vaccine as they come, and until recently, I was completely on board with vaccine mandates. But after spending the past few months on the front lines of the vaccine culture war here in Texas, I’ve come to realize that in some cases, mandates may do more harm than good. I hate to admit it, but I’ve started coming around on the governor’s stance on mandates — though, I’m sure, for entirely different reasons.
I’m a former corporate attorney turned yoga studio owner. I opened my first studio in D.C. at the beginning of 2015, and opened my second studio in my hometown of Austin (Oak + Lotus Yoga) in December 2019. By mid-March 2020, I had to move my entire business online and make the difficult decision to close my D.C. studio. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, I was able to keep my business afloat by live-streaming classes from home and subletting my Austin studio as office space.
After the pandemic forced me to run my business virtually for a year and a half, I was very excited to reopen in the safety of a world with a vaccine. I never dreamed that so much of our nation’s population would refuse this lifesaving miracle on the grounds that “you can’t tell me what to do.” I also never dreamed that my state’s allegedly pro-freedom, pro-business governor would make it illegal for me to choose how I want to run my private business.
So you can imagine my surprise when I set out to reopen my in-person studio this summer with a vaccine requirement in place intended to protect our community, only to discover that Texas had made it illegal for private businesses to require proof of vaccination for clients.
I had fully expected some blowback from folks who didn’t agree with my choice — and indeed, there was blowback. Ugly social media comments, angry emails, even a 1-star Google review — all from people who had never visited our studio (and likely never intended to). A manager from a competing studio actually encouraged the angry commenters on our social media account to visit their studio instead.
But I was ready for objections from the general public. What I was not ready for was the revelation that in the last legislative session, the lawmakers of Texas had added a small provision, buried deep in Senate Bill 968, stating that private businesses could not require proof of vaccination in order for customers to access their services.
Thankfully, even though my state’s government has blocked me from requiring people to be vaccinated, I am still allowed to require them to wear masks. And so we adjusted our policy to comply with the current state law: If people show us proof that they’re vaccinated, they’re allowed to remove their masks. Otherwise, they need to keep their masks on at all times. It’s not as strong of a policy as I had wanted for my business, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
Fortunately, all of the ugliness and unpleasant surprises have been vastly outweighed by the many people who, to this day, walk into our studio, vaccine cards proudly in hand, and thank us for having a vaccine policy in place.
And I never thought I’d say this, but now I’m glad I wasn’t allowed to keep out unvaccinated clients. Because the ones who came and stayed and respected our policies are lovely people, and getting to know them has helped me see this issue in a new light.
I sat down with one of those lovely unvaccinated people over lunch one day and had a very frank conversation about why he wasn’t vaccinated — one that really opened my eyes. At first, he just fed me all the usual anti-vaccine arguments and sound bites, and I responded with all the usual pro-vaccine responses.
But we never let the conversation turn ugly. We had already started to become good friends before broaching this topic, so we were able to keep the conversation respectful and kind, even at our deepest moments of disagreement. And because of that, he felt comfortable finally admitting to me that when it really came down to it, he was just plain freaked out by the idea of putting “that thing” in his body. And that he would rather just avoid scenarios that force him into doing something he really does not want to do.
And for the first time, I saw this issue through his eyes. What if the government or my boss were trying to force me to do something that I was terrified of doing? It wouldn’t matter whether that fear was justified or supported by scientific evidence — after all, being scared of spiders or heights or flying isn’t rational or evidence-backed either, right? When you’re scared, you’re scared. And you usually can’t logic or shame someone out of feeling scared. Trying to strong-arm them into doing the thing they’re scared of? That will just make them dig their heels in deeper.
I understand why the prospect of patiently waiting while the skeptics come around isn’t ideal. There’s a pandemic. Hospitals are full, people are dying, and we need to solve this ASAP. And I completely understand how infuriating it is when it feels like someone is endangering the health and safety of your loved ones. Some of my closest family members are emergency room doctors in Tarrant County, Tex., one of the most vaccine-resistant counties in the country. Every day since this nightmare began, they have put their lives — not to mention the lives of their young children, elderly parents, and beloved partners — at risk to fight this pandemic. For at least the past six months, they have been treating almost exclusively unvaccinated people — many of whom are, let’s just say, less than gracious in the face of my family’s sacrifices.
These people who aren’t willing to do their part in this battle are perfectly willing to put my loved ones’ lives at even greater risk. So of course I’m furious at them. And that fury makes the idea of vaccine mandates very tempting.
And yes, nationwide, employment-based vaccine mandates appear to be working. Some companies that have put mandates in place report vaccination rates over 90 percent now. But there are a lot more holdouts here in Texas than in many other parts of the country, and they are quick to rush to each others’ defense and validate each others’ beliefs. And my experience dealing with this issue on the ground has shown me that forceful tactics like mandates are just pushing many of those people deeper into their foxholes.
So maybe Abbott deserves some credit for really understanding his base. Maybe this ban on mandates is a sort of reverse-psychology move that he hopes will result in more people getting vaccinated. Or maybe he’s just catering to his base in every way that he can to get reelected. Whatever the explanation, I’m just ready to go back to running my business without having to constantly adjust for the shifting sands of this pandemic.