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.
Most businesses in Texas had been allowed to operate at 75 percent of capacity since mid-October, when Abbott also allowed bars to reopen. It was implausible that removing the cap would have much of an impact on virus transmission, even in businesses that were frequently hitting the 75 percent limit.
While Abbott said Texans would no longer be legally required to cover their faces in public, he urged them to keep doing so, and many businesses continued to require masks. At the stores I visit in Dallas, there has been no noticeable change in policy or in customer compliance.
Conversely, face mask mandates and occupancy limits did not prevent COVID-19 surges in states such as Michigan, where the seven-day average of newly confirmed infections has risen more than fivefold since March 1; Maine, which has seen a nearly threefold increase; and Minnesota, where that number has more than doubled. Cases also rose during that period, although less dramatically, in other states with relatively strict COVID-19 rules, including Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Florida, a state often criticized as lax, also has seen a significant increase in daily new cases: 34 percent since mid-March. But Florida, despite its relatively old population, still has a per capita COVID-19 death rate only a bit higher than California’s, even though the latter state’s restrictions have been much more sweeping and prolonged.