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Editorial: Decisions on COVID-19 rules should be made by community leaders

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Regardless of who emerges victorious in the legal battle over mask mandates, such important public health decisions should be decided locally.

Gov. Greg Abbott has issued executive orders aiming to stop cities, counties and school districts from enacting COVID-19 restrictions. He’s been met by open defiance — as well as lawsuits — in some areas.

But the common sense approach to mitigating the virus is allowing local officials, including school boards, to solicit input from health professionals as well as analyze data and make the best choices for residents, students and school employees.

That response is especially practical when it comes to schools.

While COVID-19 spread could be dangerously high in one district — as was the case in Longview ISD before it enacted its mask mandate Aug. 23 — it might not be in a neighboring district. That means the decision to enact safety rules should be made by officials in the trenches, so speak, based on current conditions.

At one time, perhaps before the political climate shifted, the governor agreed with that approach.

“Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in March 2020, as the pandemic was just beginning to tighten its grip on the state. “These cities and counties are following the proper protocol and guidance that they are receiving from their local health departments.”

Abbott’s office added at that time that cities and counties had done “a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities.”

The reality is the pandemic — and its dire effects on our community — is as bad as it’s ever been in the Longview area.

Virus-related hospitalizations remain at pandemic records in the Longview-Tyler region, pushing our local health care system to the limit. Longview’s ICUs remain packed, endangering care for our sickest patients.

Reports of new cases as well as community spread of the virus remain alarmingly high. And more school districts in the region are temporarily closing campuses because of COVID-19 spread.

Local entities shouldn’t be handcuffed in enacting policies, based on local conditions, that aim to keep the community safe.

Nor should they fear punishment in the form of lawsuits and ensuing legal fees.

(That could be the fate awaiting Longview ISD. The Texas Attorney General’s Office sent a letter to the district threatening legal action if its mandate wasn’t lifted, and the AG’s office announced Friday that it is suing six districts across the state that enacted similar mask rules.)

It’s unfortunate that Abbott no longer trusts the people who live in the communities affected by COVID-19 to make the best public health decisions for those communities.

As Longview ISD board President Shan Bauer told us in response to the AG’s letter, the goal of the mask mandate is to put the safety of students and staff members first. That should be the goal and responsibility of every elected local official.

Unfortunately, Abbott’s orders taking that power away from our community leaders only serves his own interests and not those of Texans.

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