ABILENE, Texas – In the weeks that Mark Riggs went from feeling worn down before Thanksgiving to dying of COVID-19 last Monday, only six calls about people not wearing face coverings rolled into the Abilene Police Department.
Even though defiance of Texas' mask mandate is easy to find here.
When Riggs checked into the hospital, a morgue trailer big enough to stack 24 bodies had just arrived out back. A medical field tent sprung up in the parking lot while doctors moved the 67-year-old college professor to a ventilator. He died in an intensive care unit that has been full for weeks and is the largest within roughly 15,000 square miles of pumpjacks and cattle pastures, bigger than Maryland.
Officers responded to three of the calls about face coverings, which have been required since June. No citations were issued.
“I've never been one to call out government or leadership,” said Katie Riggs Maxwell, 38, Riggs' daughter. “But it's suddenly extremely personal.”
As virus cases and deaths have soared across the nation this fall, pressure has intensified on governors who haven't issued mandates that require people to wear masks indoors and in public places. Health experts consider masks the most effective way of preventing the spread of COVID-19. Most states have statewide orders, and of the roughly dozen that don't, the majority are in the South.
But the debate over mandates and lockdowns — usually fueled by howls of violating individual freedoms — often drowns out the reality of whether the restrictions that are enacted are actually enforced to make them effective.
In some states like New York, where COVID cases overflowed hospitals earlier this year and were treated as a crisis, authorities have dispatched police to reports of violations, breaking up parties and even monitoring funerals where gatherings of unmasked people were anticipated. In California, Los Angeles County has issued more than 300 citations since September to churches, businesses and strip clubs for violations of COVID-19 restrictions.