TEXAS VIEW: Masks and migrants aren’t the enemy, COVID-19 is

THE POINT: Evidence indicates the delta variant spreads faster and makes people sicker, signaling a dangerous new phase in this pandemic.

You can’t win a war when you’re fighting the wrong enemy. But that is what Gov. Greg Abbott is doing as COVID-19 sends an alarming number of Texans into hospital beds and early graves. The governor is pointing his firepower at the wrong foes — local officials, mask mandates, vaccine passports, even the federal government and the migrants at our border — instead of attacking the virus that is attacking our state.

Abbott has broad powers under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 to enact rules and marshal resources to confront any calamity. Last week, however, as the state saw a five-fold increase in new COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the month, and as open ICU beds in Central Texas hit their lowest number since the dawn of the pandemic, Abbott used his disaster powers to prevent a government response to the COVID-19 disaster.

The governor’s latest executive order reiterates his ban on local mask orders, even in schools where students under 12 aren’t eligible for the vaccine. It strikes any limits on restaurant or business capacity in areas where the virus is surging. It bars government agencies and anyone who gets public funds from using screening procedures based on a person’s COVID-19 vaccination status.

Abbott is taking all of those tools off the table, enabling the virus to sweep across the state.

Of course the main goal is to advance Abbott’s 2022 reelection bid and possible White House aspirations. And in that political universe, the enemy isn’t the virus that has killed 53,000 Texas. It’s the shadow foe of big government getting in your business and telling you to wear a mask.

Abbott’s political gamesmanship inflicts real damage, though. His orders continue to tie the hands of local officials, taking away proven tools to reduce the spread of this virus. And his focus on blocking government action only reinforces the obstinate worldview of those who believe this virus is overblown and not worthy of any response. Perhaps nothing would convince them to wear a mask or get the vaccine. But Abbott’s orders give them no reason to think either is important.

While Abbott has defanged COVID-19 response in one area, he has weaponized it in another. In a separate executive order last week, Abbott decreed the threat of COVID-19 so great that state troopers should pull over any vehicle that appears to be transporting migrants, based on the fear they could be transporting the virus as well. Troopers have been ordered to send any migrants back to their origin point or a port of entry.

In Abbott’s Texas, the same government that can’t tell you to wear a mask — that would be intrusive! — can pull over cars, likely based on the racial makeup of the passengers, demand to see everybody’s paperwork and even threaten to impound the car, all in the name of fighting COVID-19. LULAC National President Domingo Garcia called it “racial profiling on steroids.” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the order “violates federal law in numerous respects,” and his office filed a lawsuit last Friday.

Just as COVID-19 cases are spiking among Texans, they are spiking among the asylum seekers that Border Patrol has lawfully allowed into the country. These are public safety concerns that need to be addressed. But the virus knows no nationality. Abbott’s response shouldn’t, either.

Consider how the controversy arose: A migrant family, positive for COVID-19 and quarantined at a motel outside of McAllen, walked into a Whataburger without masks, coughing and sneezing near other customers. Other patrons were rightly worried about their safety.

Abbott could have responded with a statewide mask mandate, like the one he imposed earlier in the pandemic; or with an order allowing cities and counties to set the mask rules their communities need; or with additional quarantine assistance. Such measures would protect the public regardless of the sick person’s immigration status.

Instead, Abbott seized on the incident to burnish his border-crackdown credentials — and shamefully prop up the malicious trope that immigrants bring disease with them. Abbott last Friday accused the Biden Administration of “knowingly importing COVID-19 into Texas from across the border and knowingly exposing Texans and Americans to that disease.” Abbott’s outrage rings hollow against his refusal to implement any measures to prevent COVID-19 spread among Texans. The areas of the state with the highest percentages of COVID-19 hospitalizations — Beaumont, Killeen and College Station — are far from the border.

Growing evidence indicates the delta variant, now the dominant strain of the coronavirus, spreads faster and makes people sicker, signaling a dangerous new phase in this pandemic. Still our governor blocks responsible measures and scapegoats migrants. Abbott is fighting the wrong battles, and Texans are suffering the consequences.

Austin American-Statesman