Because the debate over when, where and who to mask is still a thing in the country…the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson looked at what happened in Texas after Gov. Greg Abbott ended the statewide masking mandate in March.

Thompson noted that Abbott’s move was both widely hailed and criticized, depending on one’s politics. But what actually happened in the wake of Abbott’s decision?

Nine weeks later, the result seems to be less than catastrophic. In fact, in a new paper, economists at Bentley University and San Diego State University found that Abbott’s order had practically no effect on COVID-19 cases. “The predictions of reopening advocates and opponents failed to materialize,” the authors concluded.

How could a policy so consequential—or at least so publicly contested—do so little?

Thompson goes through some of the possible reasons for the lack of either catastrophe or nirvana. One of those is very intriguing:

Yet another explanation is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter because nobody changed their behavior. According to the aforementioned Texas paper, Abbot’s decision had no effect on employment, movement throughout the state, or foot traffic to retailers. It had no effect in either liberal or conservative counties, nor in urban or exurban areas. The pro-maskers kept their masks on their faces. The anti-maskers kept their masks in the garbage. And many essential workers, who never felt like they had a choice to begin with, continued their pre-announcement habits. The governor might as well have shouted into a void.

Across the country, in fact, people’s pandemic behavior appears to be disconnected from local policy, which complicates any effort to know which COVID-19 policies actually work.

In other words, people made their own masking choices before and after Abbott’s decree. Several other factors played into the outcome – the spread of vaccines undoubtedly had an effect.

But there’s another very important message to keep in mind:

Governors don’t reopen or close economies. The CDC doesn’t put masks on or take them off citizens’ faces. A small number of elites don’t decide when everyone else feels safe enough to shop, eat inside, or get on a plane. People seem to make these decisions for themselves, based on some combination of local norms, political orientation, and personal risk tolerance that resists quick reversals, no matter what public health elites say.

It’s very easy to forget that a free people making free choices can do more good than a room full of central planners.