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Texas Gov. Abbott Criticized For Lifting COVID-19 Restrictions

NOEL KING, HOST:

Starting next week, there will be two big changes in Texas. Face masks will be optional, and all businesses will be allowed to reopen. Texas Governor Greg Abbott says it's time. The CDC says no, it's really not. Yesterday, President Biden called this move, quote, "a big mistake."

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything's fine. Take off your mask. Forget it. It still matters.

KING: Governor Abbott has also been criticized by some state and local leaders, including Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, who's on the line with me now. Good morning, sir.

GREG CASAR: Good morning.

KING: Where you are in Austin, Travis County, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are declining. The governor said this when he made the announcement on Tuesday. Let's listen.

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GREG ABBOTT: Personal vigilance to follow the safe standards is still needed to contain COVID. It's just that now, state mandates are no longer needed.

KING: You disagree. Why do you disagree?

CASAR: We are finally bringing down COVID cases in our community. We were at the point of nearly overwhelming our hospital system, but people came together and wore masks here in Austin and have been bringing down our cases. And now at this moment where we only have 8% of Texans vaccinated, where just yesterday we started to announce we're going to be vaccinating teachers, at this moment is not the moment to start telling people that wearing masks is not as important.

We need to avoid a third surge here in Texas. And unfortunately, it seems that the governor is choosing to score political points and to try to change the subject from the fact that people here in our capital city still don't have water from the disaster. He doesn't want to talk about the ice storms and the failure of preparation on his part for those storms. So he's opening up this front in the culture war by eliminating mask mandates. He thinks it might score him political points, but I think it will cost people their lives.

KING: Can I ask you to confirm something for me? We'd seen reporting suggesting that the mask mandates mandate in Texas wasn't really being enforced. What was the case?

CASAR: The case is that our businesses in our community all started stepping up and saying it's required for you to wear a mask to come into this business. And that - we saw that rule change at the state and local level because the governor started allowing locals to start enforcing this as well. We saw that really change behavior. It's just like speeding. You may not have a police officer on every single street making sure people don't speed, but when people know that there is a rule, you see that increased compliance.

And taking this rule away by the governor when he says, well, you know, every single person can choose on their own whether to wear the mask or every person can choose on their own whether to speed or not, it just doesn't make any sense because the rules for things like speeding or masks aren't just to protect the wearer of the mask. They're not just - speeding rules aren't just there to protect the driver. They're there to protect everyone around you.

KING: Under the new orders, as I understand it, if hospitalizations get high enough in individual counties, then judges there can make a decision to mandate masks again. So it sounds to me like a local control situation. What's the problem with that?

CASAR: We shouldn't be waiting to wear masks when we start seeing a third surge in Texas. The entire goal is to reduce the spread of coronavirus, reduce hospitalizations and death, not to wait to listen to the science when people are dying. We've had too many family members, too many friends, too many constituents lined up in the hospital and die for us to stop listening to the science. It is such a cowardly move by the governor, just like we saw in the ice storm, where he was nowhere to be found, where our constituents were burning their furniture to stay warm. We absolutely need to come together as Texans to take care of one another, regardless of what the governor does.

KING: Austin City Council Member Greg Casar. Thanks for joining us.

CASAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.