Opinion | Greg Abbott is endangering the health of Texas and beyond

On Monday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, warned that the recent declines in daily new infections and deaths had stalled, a worrisome sign just as new virus variants are spreading. The number of new cases a day has been stuck nationwide at about 70,000 on a rolling average for a week, she noted, expressing concern that “more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from covid-19.”

“Please hear me clearly,” she added. “At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained. These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of covid-19 in our communities, not when we are so close. We have the ability to stop a potential fourth surge of cases in this country. Please stay strong in your conviction. Continue wearing you well-fitted mask and taking the other public health prevention actions that we know work.”

If there was any lesson from the disastrous push by then-President Donald Trump last year to open up — which triggered a massive Sun Belt surge of infection in Texas, Florida and Arizona — it is not to lift restrictions too soon. But Mr. Abbott, a Republican whose state was buffeted by a devastating power outage during a winter storm recently, seems determined to forget last year’s lessons. He announced Texas can return to full capacity next week as long as local hospitals are not experiencing high levels of covid patients. The governor issued an executive order saying that except in high hospitalization areas “there are no COVID-19-related operating limits for any business or other establishment.” While local officials can demand some limits below 100 percent, they cannot order establishments to close to less than 50 percent and no jurisdiction can impose a penalty of any kind for failure to wear a face mask.

The governor’s decision may cheer those feeling rebellious, fatigued and impatient with the year-long pandemic restrictions. But the result of opening too soon will be viral spread, and more suffering. Only 12.9 percent of the Texas population has received one or more doses of vaccine. They and others previously sickened may enjoy some immunity, but a huge swath of the state’s population remains vulnerable. The winter holidays and the third surge were awful. A fourth surge — which could spread beyond Texas — is the last thing the country needs just as vaccines are being rolled out. Mr. Abbott is throwing a match on kindling.

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