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Local Leaders In Texas Are Defying The Governor's Ban On Mask Mandates


The coronavirus is again tearing through Texas. Infections, hospitalizations and COVID deaths are all up. In fact, just today, Governor Greg Abbott's office says he tested positive, though he is not symptomatic. He's being treated at home. As NPR's John Burnett reports, the diagnosis comes in the midst of a battle between local leaders and the governor, who's been threatening to sue leaders who are telling children to wear face masks.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: In Texas, nearly 3 million public school students under 12 are headed back to classrooms this month. They're too young for vaccinations, and some public officials are alarmed.


LINA HIDALGO: It breaks my heart to picture these kids in the classrooms, 100% capacity, no mask, with a more transmissible variant.

BURNETT: Lina Hidalgo is county judge of Harris, which encompasses Houston, with the nation's seventh largest school district. Houston has joined Dallas, San Antonio and Austin in a public health mutiny by telling students and staff they have to wear masks on school grounds.


HIDALGO: As elected leaders, we are responsible for the health and the safety of the community, and that is the responsibility that school superintendents and principals have right now when it comes to our children.

BURNETT: Texas has turned into a checkerboard of differing school rules regarding masks. On Sunday, the Texas Supreme Court sided with Abbott and instructed Dallas schools they could not force masking. Dallas, however, remains defiant, saying protecting children from the delta variant is more important than following orders from Austin. Some cities have gone even further. San Antonio is not only sticking by its mask mandate, but it's requiring all teachers to be vaccinated. A separate court ruled in favor of San Antonio. Scott Braddock is editor of the Quorum Report, a statewide political newsletter.

SCOTT BRADDOCK: Now you have officials at the local level saying at least if you're not going to help us, get out of the way, but that doesn't seem to be where we're headed.

BURNETT: Abbott has doubled down on his laissez faire mask rule. The path forward relies on personal responsibility, he said in a statement, not government mandates. Other school districts are backing down from forcing students to wear masks either to stay away from litigation or the governor's ire. Politics are also a factor.

Texas' biggest cities are going their own way because that's where the delta variant is surging dangerously. Intensive care units are so overwhelmed that some cities, such as Austin and San Antonio, have erected overflow tents in parking lots. Abbott has appealed to out-of-state health workers to come help out overtaxed Texas hospitals. While the governor stresses personal choice, the State Health Services Department is unequivocal with this PSA.


RYAN VAN RAMSHORST: When parents ask me if they should get their children vaccinated for COVID-19, I recommend that they get that child the vaccine.

BURNETT: Meanwhile, critics are blaming the nation's COVID spike on unauthorized migrants at the border. It's true that Texas is experiencing an unprecedented flow of migrants crossing the Rio Grande - more than 200,000 encounters last month, surpassing a 20-year high. Some of them do carry the coronavirus, but that doesn't mean that diseased foreigners are somehow driving the pandemic.

JOSEPH MCCORMICK: This is an old trope. It's been around for a long time.

BURNETT: Dr. Joe McCormick is a former CDC epidemiologist who's been at the University of Texas School of Public Health, Brownsville Campus for the past two decades.

MCCORMICK: Given the level of transmission in the country, you could not possibly explain it by a few thousand people coming across the border and going to their families in various parts of the country. Epidemiologically, it doesn't work.

BURNETT: This, says Dr. McCormick, is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. As of today, fewer than half of Texans are vaxxed, and the vast majority of hospital COVID cases are people who never got the jab.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LOST IN THOUGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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