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Texas Lifts Its Mask Mandate Just In Time To Host Some Basketball Tournaments

A Covid-19 restriction signs hang outside of H-E-B supermarket on March 3, 2021 in Austin, Texas. The popular Texas supermarket chain will not require customers to wear masks when the statewide mask mandate ends on March 10, 2021.
Photo: Montinique Monroe/Getty Images

In December, after a lot of hemming and hawing, the NCAA announced it was holding its entire women's basketball tournament in March as a single-site tournament in San Antonio. The statement cited a desire for "a more controlled environment" that would limit potentially risky travel between the usual regional sites. On Tuesday, in a rather fitting wrench in the NCAA's big and careful plan, Texas became maybe the single worst site for a bubble basketball tournament. Governor Greg Abbott declared the state "open 100%" and issued an executive order to lift all business capacity restrictions and roll back the statewide mask mandate.

That's alarming news, and not ideal for a place expecting thousands of players, coaches, and spectators in a few weeks: not just the NCAA women's tournament, but also the downsized men's NIT in Dallas and a WNIT regional in Fort Worth. The NCAA is still free to institute its own mask mandates at tournament facilities, and said in February that it will, but there's no telling how cooperative surrounding people and businesses might be. The "more controlled environment" is now suddenly much less controlled, and programs have every right to question the NCAA's ability to pull this off.

Though maybe they shouldn't expect answers. Evidently caught off guard by Abbott's announcement, the NCAA last night released a vague and hasty "statement regarding mask mandates," one that doesn't actually regard mask mandates much more than it regards, say, the weather outside today or the ethics of drinking almond milk:

Protecting the health and safety of participants and fans during NCAA championships remains the NCAA’s priority. In preparation for the 2021 Division I Women’s Basketball Championship, the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), as well as all other championships, the NCAA has monitored ongoing COVID-19 developments in all states since the onset of the pandemic.We will continue to work closely with local medical authorities, the NCAA COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group, and CDC guidelines to determine the appropriate health and safety protocols for our events.

Beyond the obvious recklessness of Abbott lifting the mask mandate with mass vaccination right around the corner, there's some irony to the situation. The governor's decision was made with a premature fantasy of immediately packed restaurants and arenas and a roaring state economy in mind, but he didn't account for all the ways he's just made Texas an unattractive place for people to visit.

Accepting an NIT bid only barely appealed to the nation's middling college basketball coaches to begin with; the rollback of a reassuring and essentially costless safety measure certainly won't make it more likely that they'll want to attend. And how many potential spectators have now been scared off from making the trip? You might say Abbott's Business Genius Maneuver actually negates the very point of hosting a tournament!

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