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On COVID, Republicans' 'free market' beliefs come with fine print

When it comes to mask requirements and vaccine mandates, many Republicans balk, emphasizing personal "choices." The principle comes with fine print.


In states like Texas and Florida, Americans see Republican governors struggling to keep up with an intensifying pandemic crisis, while simultaneously prohibiting mask requirements and vaccine mandates that would help make a difference as the virus spreads.

But it's one thing for GOP governors to use heavy handed tactics against city officials and school districts; it's something else to see them push around businesses, too.

In Texas, this week, owners of two restaurants in Austin announced plans to require indoor diners to show proof of at least a first round of vaccinations against COVID-19. As the Austin American-Statesman reported, it didn't take long for state officials to push back.

Two days after announcing a new policy that required indoor diners to provide proof of at least one round of COVID-19 vaccination, sister restaurants Launderette and Fresa's changed their policy after receiving a phone call and letter from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission alerting them that they were in violation of Section 14 of Senate Bill 968.

The statute in question refers to a policy created by Texas Republican lawmakers to prohibit businesses from requiring proof of vaccination. Those who fail to comply risk losing state licenses that are needed to keep businesses' doors open.

In this case, the restaurant owners were told they had no choice in the matter, so they reversed course to avoid closure.

This caught my eye in part because it's part of a larger pattern. In recent months, we've also seen Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) clash with cruise ship operators, who tend to be a pretty important voice in the Sunshine State's tourism industry. As NBC News reported in the spring, executives at companies such as Norwegian Cruise Line have said the governor's policy would make it harder for them to safely return to the seas. Their concerns were hardly surprising: as was obvious before 2020, a virus can spread quickly among people confined to a boat.

DeSantis effectively told the ship operators to meet his demands anyway.

Taking a step back, there are a few relevant dimensions to a story like this.

First, it's hard not to notice that, as far as many Republicans are concerned, if a business wants to deny service to an LGBTQ couple, the rights of those business owners must be protected at all costs, but if a business wants to deny service to the unvaccinated, that's an intolerable outrage.

Second, a staple of Republican orthodoxy for generations is an unshakable belief in the free market and the power of decision-making in the private sector. It's curious to see those principles get pushed aside during a pandemic when business owners want to take steps to protect the public and their customers.

And finally, when it comes to mask requirements and vaccine mandates, many Republicans balk, insisting that the only tolerable policy is one built on personal "choices."

What was less obvious was the fine print: business owners who make choices Republicans don't like should expect punishment.