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On COVID mask protections, Texas throws in the towel (for now)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has fought tooth and nail to block mask requirements. For now, his policy will no longer be enforced.


Like many southern states, Texas continues to struggle with rising COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, including a rise in pediatric hospitalizations. It's led dozens of school districts across the state to require mask protections for students to help curtail the spread of the virus.

And while that may seem like a common-sense precaution, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and state Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) have nevertheless fought tooth and nail to undo those local policies. "Local mask mandates are illegal," the Texas attorney general's office said in a statement this week.

The governor's policy remains in effect, but as the New York Times reported overnight, enforcement of the order has been halted.

The Texas Education Agency said it would temporarily stop enforcing Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates and the State Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing school districts to require face-coverings. Both decisions are temporary. The agency said in new guidance on Thursday that it would immediately stop enforcing the ban on mask mandates until litigations were resolved.

Keeping up with the assorted lawsuits, court orders, and rulings isn't easy, and many disputes remain unresolved. As of last night, it's led state officials in Texas to effectively throw in the towel: if local communities want to rely on mask protections during the pandemic, they can, at least for now.

At least in the short term, the shift should help with the spread of the virus. What's less clear is how long a reprieve Texans should expect: the state's Republican governor hasn't changed his mind, and it's likely that when the court cases have fully run their course, Abbott, Paxton, and other state officials will once again try to ban the public-health requirements.

It was not the only relevant development in the Lone Star State yesterday. The Texas Tribune reported:

Texas school districts must now notify teachers, staff and students' families of positive COVID-19 cases in classrooms or extracurricular or after-school programs, the Texas Education Agency announced in updated public health guidance Thursday. This is a change from the TEA's previous guidance, which didn't explicitly require school districts to notify parents of a close contact with the virus.

This has long struck me as a difficult policy to understand. Before yesterday, if a student in a Texas school tested positive, there was no notification requirement. Teachers wouldn't necessarily know about kids from their own classrooms getting sick, and the parents of other students would be left in the dark, too.

As state officials gave up on fighting mask protections, they also moved away from COVID secrecy.

Even if Texas eventually regresses, the state should benefit in the meantime.