(CN) — Pointing to progress on vaccines and a drop in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations over the past few weeks, Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced the state would end its mask mandate and allow all businesses to fully reopen after months of pandemic-related restrictions.
“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” the Republican governor said while speaking at a Lubbock Tex-Mex restaurant. “Every business that wants to be open, should be open.”
New daily cases of Covid-19 have fallen in Texas from more than 20,000 in late January to about 1,700 as of Monday, though that number briefly spiked to more than 7,000 last week. Hospitalizations have dropped from more than 14,000 to about 5,600 over that time.
During Tuesday’s speech, Abbott announced an executive order virtually eliminating any business restrictions in the state, including a requirement in effect since July that people wear masks in public spaces. The order takes effect Wednesday, March 10.
“I am ending the statewide mask mandate,” the governor said to loud cheers and applause from business owners gathered for his speech.
At the same time, Abbott cautioned that “Covid has not like, suddenly disappeared.” He urged Texans to continue with “personal vigilance” and suggested business owners would still require masks if they wanted to.
“It is their businesses, and they get to choose to operate their business how they want to,” he said.
The governor also said that local officials would be allowed to continue with public health restrictions, if Covid-19 hospitalizations in a given region jump back above a certain threshold – 15% of total hospital bed capacity in the region – for seven straight days.
“However, under no circumstances can a county judge put anybody in jail for not following Covid orders,” Abbott said. “And no penalties can [be] imposed for failing to wear a face mask.”
Though the governor’s order does not take effect for about a week, it’s likely that many Texans will quickly abandon mask wearing, especially given Abbott’s own characterization of the order.
“I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%,” Abbott wrote on Twitter shortly after his Lubbock appearance. “EVERYTHING.”
Justifying the move to fully reopen Texas, Abbott cited the nearly 5.7 million vaccines the state has administered out of its 29 million residents so far, saying that number should grow to about 7 million by Wednesday.
The governor also issued a bold promise, saying that by the end of the month, “every senior who wants a vaccine shot will be able to get a vaccine shot.”
Though the pandemic has indeed weakened in Texas and across the nation after killing more than 500,000 people, some experts remain worried about Americans letting their guard down too soon, particularly as coronavirus variants circulate around the world.
Abbott’s announcement comes as federal health officials have urged states to not roll back things like mask mandates.
On Monday, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urged public health officials to keep restrictions in place for now, citing a troubling stall in the decline of new Covid-19 cases nationwide.
“I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people,” Walensky said during a virtual White House press briefing. “We cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths.”
Walensky called the coronavirus variants a “very real threat” to the nation’s progress battling the pandemic.
“Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread,” Walensky said. “Not when we are so close.”
Abbott’s move is likely to anger some local officials in Texas, a point he acknowledged during his speech in Lubbock. Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, has already accused the governor of lifting the pandemic restrictions as a way to distract from the state’s handling of last month’s deadly winter storm, the Houston Chronicle reported.
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