By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday, March 2nd, Republican governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Tate Reeves of Mississippi combatively announced that their states would drop their respective mask mandates. The two governors also removed COVID-related restrictions on businesses, allowing them to open to full capacity. The governors insisted these decisions were based on the increasing number of vaccinations, and declining number of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
The next day, an exasperated President Biden called the governors’ actions a big mistake. He said that despite his Administration’s progress with vaccine distribution, “the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask and forget it.”
Biden stressed that over 511,000 Americans have died thus far, and that before Americans are completely safe, thousands of additional lives may be lost: With evident frustration, Biden declared: “Getting a shot in someone’s arm and getting the second shot [is] going to take time, and it’s critical, critical, critical, critical that they follow the science. Wash your hands, hot water. Do it frequently, wear a mask and stay socially distanced. I know you all know that. I wish the heck some of our elected officials knew it.”
In response to Biden’s legitimate concern, the two Republican governors predictably played the same tired old GOP songs of distract, distort, and lie. Texas Governor Abbott priggishly told CNBC that Biden’s comment was “not the type of word that a president should be using.” Mississippi Governor Reeves said, ““Today I feel the same way as I did the day that Hillary Clinton called all of us in Middle America ‘deplorables.’ When President Biden said that we were all Neanderthals, it struck me as someone who needs to get outside of Washington, D.C. and actually travel to Middle America.”
Given Abbott’s virtual silence on the verbal attacks perpetrated for the last four years by Donald Trump, his suggestion that the word “Neanderthal” is inappropriate in the mouth of a president is laughable. And Reeves should check his geography. Mississippi is in the south, not in the middle of America. Reeves should also check his own understanding of plain language, since Biden did not call any American citizens Neanderthals. He did not even call Abbott and Reeves Neanderthals. He only described the shortsightedness of their thinking concerning COVID. And rightly so.
Abbott based his decision on growing vaccination rates, but according to the Dallas Morning News, with 29 million Texans, fewer than 2 million have completed their vaccinations. Furthermore, according to CNBC, although Texas experienced a large drop in its average number of cases between January and March, the state still is fifth-highest in daily deaths and ninth in daily reported cases per capita. Mississippi also ranks among the top 10 states for per capita daily deaths.
Of the four medical advisers on Abbott’s Strike Force to Open Texas, Abbott consulted only one before making his announcement—evidently, the one who would support Abbott’s own position on reopening. Since the others would say only that they had not been consulted, we do not know what their advice would have been.
Nor did Reeves sufficiently adhere to the concerns expressed by his own state’s experts. Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs has warned that a return to pre-pandemic behavior could spell disaster for the state’s efforts to control the virus. “You can catch COVID,” he cautioned. “And we can mess this up.”
In defending their wholesale reopening of businesses and removal of mask mandates, Abbott and Reeves have fallen back on a combination of Libertarian “personal responsibility” arguments and a callous preference for saving the economy over saving life—which will result in saving neither.
Demonstrating that his main concern is really the effect of COVID on the economy, Abbott announced, “Effective … Wednesday, all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100 percent.” Abbott’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick added that reopening businesses without restrictions would help “restore the livelihoods of millions of Texans even faster.” Of course, Patrick is the same man who a year ago was blasted for saying that the old—the most at risk—should volunteer to die to save the economy. (“Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.”)
As a rationale for his decision, Abbott stated that the COVID infections in Texas were at a four-month low and its hospitals were ready to treat an inundation of patients if that should occur. Mississippi’s Reeves concurred, tweeting about his state, “Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed.”
But opening up all businesses of any type, 100 percent, as Abbott has now done—even with COVID numbers lessening—is akin to stopping a 10-day course of penicillin after a few days because you feel a little better. If you don’t take the full course of your medicine, the infection will come back twice as strong. Based on the U.S. experience over this past year, easing up on restrictions before everyone is vaccinated is likely to result in yet another tragic wave of infection and deaths, and the inevitable reimposition of limitations on businesses.
As for “personal responsibility,” Abbott claims that Texans already know that “the safe standard, among other things, is to wear a mask.” He told CNBC, “Do they really need the state to tell them what they already know for their own personal behavior?” Reeves likewise shirked his gubernatorial duty: “The governor’s office is getting out of the business of telling people what they can and cannot do.” Reeves added , “Mississippians don’t need handlers. As numbers drop, they can assess their choices and listen to experts. I guess I just think we should trust Americans, not insult them.”
These arguments are absurd. Abbott and Reeves might as well maintain we don’t need traffic laws. After all, every American knows they should drive on the right side of the road, stop at stop signs and at red lights. Why insult them with traffic laws?
Following the axiom that the best defense is an offense and, when you have nothing else, lie and distort, Abbott also tried to blame spread of the coronavirus on immigrants crossing the southern border. He claimed the Biden administration refuses to test immigrants for the virus, instead letting them overrun the country. Abbott argued that the federal government has the responsibility to test, screen and quarantine illegal immigrants who may have COVID, and that "Instead of doing their job, the Biden Administration suggested it did not have the sufficient resources and, remarkably, asked Texas to assist them in aiding their illegal immigration program. Texas refused."
But as Press Secretary Jen Psaki has explained, when migrants are placed in alternatives to detention, they are first tested for COVID-19, and steps for isolation, quarantine and medical care are taken if needed. The federal government works in concert with state and local governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to get this done. Psaki highlighted the role of NGOs, saying, "If quarantining or self-isolation is needed, [the NGOs] have even reserved hotel blocks."
Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security has already set plans in motion to use FEMA funds to support community efforts to test, isolate and quarantine migrants released from Border Patrol custody. But the grant money needs to be approved by the state before it can be distributed to border communities, and Abbott’s intransigence is hampering the Biden administration’s efforts to provide federal funds.
It is difficult to treat the actions and statements of Abbott and Reeves as separate from the many other post-election Republican manipulations. There is the GOP’s continuing perpetuation of the Big Lie that Biden was not legitimately elected. Forty-three Republican-controlled states are attempting to pass legislation limiting who can vote. Republicans like Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson have used every tactic available to delay passage of the COVID relief bill in the Senate. And Representative Majorie Taylor Greene is doing her best to obstruct work in the House with daily motions to adjourn. These maneuvers appear geared towards making the COVID recovery ineffectual so that such failure, along with voter suppression, can be used against the Democrats in the 2022 midterm election, only two years away.
It is hard to believe that political calculation isn’t the real reason for the actions of the Texas and Mississippi governors’ decision to prematurely reopen their states, rather than mere shortsightedness. If that is the case, “Neanderthal” would be a far too gentle name for them and their harmful thinking.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.