To “step on a rake” is a euphemism for inflicting pain and damage upon yourself. The imagery is straightforward: You’re walking through a yard, accidentally step on the head of a rake, and the handle whips up and smacks you on the bean. Sideshow Bob of The Simpsons perfected the art.
This week, a number of Republican officials across the country abruptly decided COVID was done, in defiance of all present evidence, and set about tap-dancing on a whole pile of rakes. It would be funny in a sad clown kind of way, but for this: When people like that step on rakes like these, COVID swoops in and kills thousands. It has happened already this year, and if these fellows get their way, it is about to happen again.
“I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%,” Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott tweeted out of the clear blue sky of Tuesday afternoon. “EVERYTHING. I also ended the statewide mask mandate.”
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Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, the Costello to Abbott’s Abbott, immediately followed suit. “Starting tomorrow, we are lifting all of our county mask mandates and businesses will be able to operate at full capacity without any state-imposed rules,” Reeves tweeted. “Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed. It is time!”
This folly is not simply a regional affair. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, whose state was one of the first and worst COVID hotspots at the outset of the pandemic, is looking to step on his own chowdah-flavored rake. Starting on Monday, Massachusetts will allow significant capacity increases in restaurants and bars, theaters, indoor concert halls and stadiums.
Baker’s decision is not being greeted with the resounding cheers he was hoping for. “I’d say, ‘Charlie, you’re making a big mistake,’” Robert Horsburgh, a Boston University professor of epidemiology, told The Boston Globe. “Opening up these restaurants is going to prolong the epidemic, and increase the number of Massachusetts residents that die.”
The timing of this sudden outburst of COVID tommyrot could not be worse. A robust national vaccination program is well underway, but is only a fraction completed, and is currently in a footrace with several COVID variants that have proven far more infective than the original. The longer this virus is allowed to fester and spread, the more likely new variants will rise that could weaken the effectiveness of the vaccines. Any actions taken that might cause this must be avoided at all costs.
While the nation has certainly moved past the gruesome winter explosion of new cases that saw the death toll surpass half a million people, we are far from being free and clear. The U.S. saw 65,000 cases a day each day last week, a still-horrific number that shows the pandemic is nowhere near under control.
Last week, new cases in Texas rose 27 percent. New cases in Mississippi rose by 62 percent in the same time frame. The daily average of new cases increased in eight other states last week besides Texas and Mississippi. In Europe, a six-week decline in new cases came to an abrupt end with a 9 percent increase, and World Health Organization (WHO) officials fear another spike may be underway.
Back in April 2020, Governor Abbott got out over his skis and announced a lethally early reopening of Texas. “Every recommendation, every action by the governor will be informed and based on hard data and the expertise of our chief medical advisers,” Abbott adviser James Huffines told the press at the time. Thousands upon thousands of Texans died.
This time, Abbott isn’t even bothering: Three of his four official COVID experts were not consulted before this reopening decision was made.
“I don’t think this is the right time,” said Abbott COVID adviser Mark McClellan, one of the three who was not consulted. “Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.”
McClellan is not alone in his concerns. “Some of Texas’ top doctors warned Wednesday that Gov. Greg Abbott’s sudden decision to ditch the mask mandate and lift coronavirus restrictions could result in a new surge of Covid-19 infections and deaths,” reports NBC News. “And while they now have enough masks, ventilators and emergency room space to treat a new wave of patients, they say there is an acute shortage of staffers who aren’t already stressed out and exhausted from battling the pandemic for more than a year.”
The problem, of course, is that what happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas. Neighboring New Mexico, a favorite vacation destination for many Texans, has spent months struggling to deal with Texas tourists who flout COVID safety rules because freedom, or something. Now, with pandemic matters finally beginning to come under some semblance of control, the idea of pulling back on COVID restrictions is terrifyingly irresponsible.
The editorial board of The Santa Fe New Mexican made a particularly barbed point on Tuesday: “Texas still is digging out of the crisis that erupted when the state’s energy grid crashed during a spell of frigid weather. Some cities still are having problems with their water supplies — news website Vox reported Monday that 390,000 Texans still lack drinking water. Surely, Texas doesn’t need another coronavirus outbreak on top of what state residents have named ‘SNOVID.’ One crisis at a time, please.”
At the federal level of government, “concerns” are being raised by Republicans about the size of President Biden’s latest stimulus package. Things aren’t that bad anymore, they argue, so let’s give the people less. As with all things COVID, however, the formula holds true: If you think you have a lid on this thing, wait a week.
Only when a significant majority of the population has been vaccinated will there be any kind of true daylight, and we may wind up having to endure one more winter of masks and social distancing before that happy moment comes to pass. The stimulus is merely adequate to the task, and much more remains to be done.
The United States has handled COVID about as poorly as anything could be handled over the last year, and more than half a million people are dead because of it. With the final scourging of Trumpism from the White House, an effective fight against the pandemic is finally underway. Now, reckless governors are lobbing a hand grenade into that clockwork.
I pray the good people of Texas, Mississippi, Massachusetts and, well, everywhere take stock of what they have sacrificed over this long year, and choose to ignore their state and local leaders when they are invited to fling themselves off a cliff.
We are not out of this yet, and every greedy capitalism-driven push to pretend otherwise only serves to extend the timeline and prolong the agony. It sucks. The alternative is worse.