The strategy conflicts with efforts by the Biden administration to urge caution as new variants of the virus spread throughout the country, threatening to undo progress in controlling the disease at the very moment that immunizations are beginning to accelerate.
Abbott’s announcement came just days after two fellow governors seen as potential rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination took victory laps at the Conservative Political Action Conference by boasting of their efforts to resist the sort of restrictions that the Texas governor had imposed.
Gov. Kristi L. Noem of South Dakota said her hands-off approach had given her national name recognition. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida greeted activists at the Orlando gathering with this overture: “Welcome to our oasis of freedom!”
Abbott appeared elated to join their ranks Tuesday.
“I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%” he tweeted. “EVERYTHING.”
Republican politicians resistant to public health guidance once followed the lead of President Donald Trump. But the move by Abbott demonstrates how GOP governors hostile to pandemic restrictions are taking center stage as the party considers a post-Trump future.
The governors — responsive to a Republican electorate radicalized by the pandemic and inflamed by animus against experts and government regulations — are jockeying to present themselves as chief adversaries to President Biden. And with vaccine distribution ramping up, there is political risk in delaying a return to normalcy.
DeSantis and Noem in particular have become right-wing standard-bearers, with the Florida governor winning the most support behind Trump in a CPAC straw poll of 2024 contenders.
Abbott, who’s up for reelection next year and has drawn a primary challenger critical of the Texas mask mandate, made his announcement Tuesday without speaking to his top medical adviser. He was immediately rebuked by Biden and the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pressure on the Texas governor had been mounting on all fronts.
First came the winter storm that pummeled the economy and made him the target of public outrage. Gathering, too, was frustration within his own state’s Republican Party, whose slogan, “We are the storm,” echoes the rallying cry of QAnon extremists who have gained a foothold in the party and turned it into a hub of coronavirus misinformation.
Just 26 percent of Republicans in Texas view the coronavirus as a significant crisis, according to a poll this month from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune. A similarly small fraction of Republicans support the federal government’s handling of the pandemic. Meanwhile, 41 percent said they would not get a coronavirus vaccine right away.
The findings suggest that the criticism directed at Abbott from the Biden administration isn’t a bug in his strategy. It’s a feature of its appeal for Republican voters influenced by Internet-inspired arguments portraying opposition to public health guidelines as a cultural battle against liberal elites.
“The Karens of the world are losing their power, and that includes the ones in Washington,” said Judy Nichols, the Republican chairwoman in Jefferson County in Southeast Texas, recasting the online meme typically deployed against women who weaponize their privilege, whether in racist aggression or against mask requirements.
Assessing views in the swing county, where Trump made further inroads last fall after narrowly flipping the area in 2016, Nichols said, “There is a fierce understanding here that the government is not the boss of the citizens.”
A parallel reaction, though couched in different language, was on display among Republican leaders in Tarrant County, where Biden’s victory in November threatened the GOP’s lock on the traditionally conservative bastion centered in Fort Worth. “I’m not anti-mask, per se,” said Jeremy Bradford, executive director of the county party. “I’m anti-mandate.”
Abbott joined anti-government ideology with a nod to the culture wars in explaining his approach. At a Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday, he affirmed, “People and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.” And appearing the following day on Fox News, he blamed immigrants released near the border for spreading coronavirus in Texas.
Still, his stance may be insufficient for the party’s right-wing base. A post shared in a Facebook group for Tarrant County Republicans advised against praise: “We shouldn’t applaud a fish for swimming, nor a governor giving back freedoms he had no power to take away in the first place.” In a tweet reacting to the changes, Allen West, the former Florida congressman and chairman of the Texas Republican Party, said Abbott was “following the example” of Noem and DeSantis. South Dakota ranks second nationally for most coronavirus cases reported per capita and eighth for most deaths per capita.
Unlike South Dakota, however, Texas has lagged behind in immunizations. It is among the slowest in administering vaccine doses distributed to the state. Only 13.6 percent of the population has received at least one dose in Texas, according to CDC data, compared with about 22 percent in South Dakota and 15.5 percent in Florida.
Joining Noem and DeSantis at CPAC in criticizing government action to control the pandemic was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who used the occasion to say wearing more than one mask, as updated CDC guidance indicates can reduce exposure in certain instances, was “dumb.”
“The proximate cause of Abbott’s actions wasn’t the winter storm as much as it was CPAC,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “He sees other Republican governors bragging about how their state is open, and he didn’t want to be the last Republican governor with economic restrictions.”
A spokeswoman for Abbott declined to make him available for an interview. But in a statement responding to Biden’s remark that the move reflected “Neanderthal thinking,” the spokeswoman, Renae Eze, said, “Texas now has the tools and knowledge to combat covid while also allowing Texans and small businesses to make their own decisions.”
Abbott’s moves — and similar steps taken the same day by Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) — reflect deepening weariness with the pandemic, especially for business owners, combined with optimism that warmer weather and the accelerating immunization effort might pave the way back to normal. Reeves pointed to declining rates of hospitalization in explaining his decision to roll back mask requirements. His remarks were followed by an affirmation from the state’s top health officer, Thomas Dobbs, that he would continue to wear a mask and that others should do the same to protect themselves.
John Hellerstedt, the Texas health commissioner, did not appear with Abbott as he unveiled his new orders, and the top medical adviser later told state lawmakers that he had not personally consulted with the governor before the announcement.
Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all fallen steeply in Texas and Mississippi, as in much of the country, but the numbers are still relatively high. “The overall trajectory remains upward,” said Rebecca Fischer, an epidemiologist at Texas A&M University and part of a team that once provided forecasts to the governor’s office.
“A team of experts doing epidemiology, infectious-disease work, modeling, forecasting, statistical analysis have their eyes on this data, and it’s clear to us that the masking rules work,” she said.
Governors of both parties have eased up in recent weeks, on things from indoor dining to athletics, in an early sign that the Biden administration’s science-first approach may have little purchase for people eager to resume their old lives — to shop, eat and take recreation as they please. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) on Thursday bought her state, which also has lagged behind in immunizations, a little more time. She said she will extend the state’s mask mandate only through April 9.
“While I’m convinced a mask mandate has been the right thing to do, I also respect those who object and believe this was a step too far in government overreach,” she said.
Government overreach has been the charge leveled against Abbott by his conservative critics, including the Republican challenging him for party’s nomination for governor. “Thanks for opening Texas but in too many cases the irreparable damage is done,” tweeted Chad Prather, an Internet personality who has a show on BlazeTV. The only other announced challenger, a former city council member in Rusk, Tex., recently stepped away from his campaign after facing criticism over a January tweet that included a picture of a noose and the words, “Starting in D.C. - let ’em hang by the neck until they are dead, dead DEAD!!!”
These figures aren’t credible threats to Abbott, said Rottinghaus, of the University of Houston. The political scientist said the reopening strategy appeared designed to prove his bona fides in the business community — especially after the devastation of the winter storm — as much as it was intended to shore up support among conservative activists. Seventy-two percent of Republicans said it was more important to help the economy than it was to control the virus, according to this month’s polling, compared with 82 percent of Democrats who said the opposite.
But business leaders are hardly united on the best path forward, said Steve Ahlenius, president and chief executive of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Texas Chamber of Commerce Executives. Some are eager to return to full occupancy, he said. Others would prefer to maintain restrictions, and to be able to point to government directives as their rationale.
Charles Smith, a former Texas health commissioner, said he will continue to wear a mask outside his home and hopes others will also, even without a mandate.
“If the government came back tomorrow and said you don’t have to wear your seat belt, we wouldn’t stop wearing seat belts,” Smith said.