Critics said Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision was “extraordinarily dangerous” and reflected “Neanderthal thinking.”
After Texas became the first state to eliminate both its face mask mandate and its business occupancy limits in early March, President Joe Biden said the decision reflected “Neanderthal thinking.” Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, described Gov. Greg Abbott’s order as “extraordinarily dangerous,” warning that it “will kill Texans.”
Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top COVID-19 adviser, said lifting mask mandates “is really quite risky,” because “when you pull back on measures of public health, invariably you’ve seen a surge” in cases and deaths.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said she had a “recurring feeling” of “impending doom,” warning that premature relaxation of “public health prevention strategies” could lead to a “fourth surge.”
More than two months later, the public health disaster predicted by Abbott’s critics has not materialized. A new analysis by three economists confirms that his decision had no discernible impact on COVID-19 cases or deaths in Texas.
“We find no evidence that the Texas reopening led to substantial changes in social mobility, including foot traffic at a wide set of business establishments in Texas,” Bentley University economist Dhaval Dave and his two co-authors report in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. ”
We find no evidence that the Texas reopening affected the rate of new COVID-19 cases during the five weeks following the reopening.” They say their findings “underscore the limits of late-pandemic era COVID-19 reopening policies to alter private behavior.”
Dave, San Diego State University economist Joseph Sabia, and SDSU graduate research fellow Samuel Safford looked at smartphone mobility data from SafeGraph and COVID-19 data collected by The New York Times. They compared trends in Texas before and after Abbott’s order took effect on March 10 to trends in a composite of data from other states that retained their COVID-19 restrictions but were otherwise similar.
“We find that the Texas reopening had little impact on stay-at-home behavior or on foot traffic at numerous business locations, including restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, retail establishments, business services, personal care services, and grocery stores,” Dave et al. write. “We find no evidence that the reopening affected the rate of new COVID-19 cases in the five-week period following the reopening. In addition, we find that state-level COVID-19 mortality rates were unaffected by the March 10 reopening.”
Those “null results” were essentially the same in a separate analysis that excluded Austin and Travis County, which maintained local face mask mandates after Abbott lifted the statewide requirement.
They also persisted when the researchers compared more urban to less urban counties and when they compared counties where most voters supported Biden in the 2020 election to counties where most voters supported former President Donald Trump, based on prior research indicating that Trump supporters are less likely to wear face masks and follow other COVID-19 safeguards.