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Texas is ‘open 100%,’ but has it really crossed the pandemic finish line?

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Signs requiring face masks are seen during the coronavirus pandemic on the door at a business in downtown San Antonio, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas is lifting a mask mandate and lifting business capacity limits next week.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

When do we cross the finish line? Whose job is it to throw a symbolic mask in the air and declare the world back to normal, or as close to that as we can ever be again? 

The answer, sadly, may be another question: Why should we expect the end to be any less combative than any other part of the last 12 months?

The intersection of politics and science isn’t easily governed by stop signs or traffic lights. Loud collisions have been common during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Texas is the latest scene of public-policy carnage. The governor there, Greg Abbott, saddled up the endgame and rode it triumphantly across the finish line earlier this week. It was more of a prop than a real finishing ribbon, but the production value was impressive.

“Texas is OPEN 100%. EVERYTHING,” he tweeted, using all-caps to make sure out-of-state tourists could hear, just in case any of them were wondering where to go this summer.

Mississippi was right behind, ordering the same thing. Iowa, Montana and North Dakota had already dumped their masks, to much less fanfare. 

Behind the capital letters, you could barely hear Dallas County Health Director Philip Huang, who told the Dallas Morning News, “It’s still too early.” Case counts are down, but the virus is still alive and finding new hosts, and new variants may be lurking.

Meanwhile, on Utah’s Capitol Hill, some recent committee hearings could be case studies for the tortured decisions politicians have to make in a pandemic. 

One concerned a bill that would define exactly when things should return to normal, placing a virtual ribbon across a finish line defined by case numbers, positivity rates, rolling averages and all the other things with which people have become casually conversant over the past year.

Public comments at this hearing ranged from the oft-heard street-level libertarian refrain, “People know the risks, and we should allow people to govern themselves,” to concerns from health officials about going too far, too soon.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said the goalposts in the bill had been negotiated and were roughly a middle-point between what he wanted and what Utah Department of Health officials said was best.

But can medical science be negotiated? Are recommendations from health officials just philosophical talking points to throw into the brew of political give-and-take? 

From the start in Utah, the governor’s office has been more aligned with health officials, while lawmakers pulled for more openness. I remember a conversation with one lawmaker last spring who found it ridiculous that the economy was closing when case numbers, at the time, were so low. That was months before a fall surge pushed daily cases into the thousands. 

While Utah lawmakers wrangled over this and at least one other bill that, in its original form, would have ended the mask mandate, a February opinion poll by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found that 53% of registered voters in Utah think Gov. Spencer Cox has done a good job handling the pandemic, mask requirements and all. A January poll found 87% saying they wear masks any time they leave the house.

Most people, it seems, are at least grudgingly willing to do what the doctors want. But these aren’t the people who call state senators and representatives. They don’t tend to pack legislative hearings. 

Politicians always keep a wary eye on voters and publicity, calculating the cost to public health against a rising tide of anger. Health officials keep an equally wary eye on science and data, trying to grab the reins of political horses before they gallup too far ahead. Crash! Bang!

And yet, despite all the sound, fury and artificial finish lines, a real finish line does exist somewhere, and it probably isn’t too far ahead. Vaccines are plunging into arms daily. Utah’s governor, not as prone to all-caps pronouncements as his counterpart in Texas, says we may all be eligible for a shot by the end of April.

Utah has kept its economy more open than most states. The biggest inconvenience, besides social distancing in restaurants and limited seating at sporting events, has been a mask mandate.

Now, like children pining for Christmas morning, we keep nagging to know when we lose that, and when we can go back to capacity crowds at Jazz games.

The real answer doesn’t make for a good campaign slogan. It isn’t a politician’s dream. It won’t make the agitators happy right now, and no, it can’t be legislated. 

It may well be as simple as exercising patience for a few weeks more, and hoping Texas doesn’t fuel a resurgence that makes it last even longer.