States Give In to Lure of Reopening, Defying Health Warnings
California Governor Gavin Newsom, under threat of recall, is pushing for young students’ return to classrooms. Nevada, with 11 straight months of declining gambling revenue, wants to scrap most virus-related restrictions. Alabama, against one of the lowest Covid-19 vaccination rates among U.S. states, is saying goodbye to masks next month.
Governors loosening coronavirus restrictions -- or, like Texas and Mississippi, lifting them entirely -- are counting on Johnson & Johnson’s new vaccine to usher in a return to prepandemic life. Health experts say their surrender to tantalizing normality, amid a death toll of 520,000 and climbing, is courting a potential fourth U.S. surge.
Coast to coast, deaths have slowed and cases have fallen, but the latter figure has plateaued. By month-end, the supercontagious U.K. variant of Covid-19 will dominate American cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in a sobering example of what can happen when economies hurriedly reopen, Hungary and Italy this week returned to or tightened partial lockdowns after infections jumped.
“We’re now dealing with a virus that’s better at its job than the one we were dealing with a few months ago, so it makes it even more irresponsible to open up,” said Robert Wachter, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
In the U.S., no elected officials have moved more boldly against pandemic safety precautions than Republican governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Tate Reeves of Mississippi, who Wednesday lifted mask rules and rescinded other orders intended to slow the virus’s spread. President Joe Biden decried “Neanderthal thinking,” while the CDC urged states not to abandon their safety efforts.
While Abbott and Reeves have said they have to reopen for the sake of the economy, Texas and Mississippi don’t appear to have pressing revenue needs. Texas’s total tax revenue collected from April through December 2020 was just 10.4% lower than the same period in 2019, according to data collected by the Urban Institute.
“We really don’t see any major differences in the economic data that would suggest that Texas should need to or want to open up sooner than anyone else,” Dan White, director of public sector research at Moody’s Analytics, said in a telephone interview. He said the same is true for Mississippi.
Some of Abbott and Reeves’s Republican peers are being more cautious.
Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia, which has one of the nation’s leading vaccination rates, in a CNN interview called unmasking “almost a macho thing.”
Ohio’s Mike DeWine on Thursday said all restrictions would be lifted when cases drop beneath 50 per 100,000 people, or roughly one-third the current level. Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb called himself “very Indiana-centric,” and will continue his mandates.
In Alabama, Republican Governor Kay Ivey on Thursday extended a mask order -- but only until April 9 -- after a 77% drop in weekly hospitalizations since January’s peak. Her state is behind on vaccinations, with just 7.5% of residents receiving the maximum-effect dual doses, among the nation’s lowest rates, according to CDC data posted Thursday.
The reopening temptation extends to Democrat-led states as well. New York City movie theaters were scheduled to reopen at 25% capacity Friday, along with any still closed in the rest of the state.
Connecticut, starting March 19, is doing away with crowd caps on restaurants, retail stores, gyms, houses of worship and more, while New Jersey is increasing capacity for wedding receptions, the states’ governors announced this week. The two-dose vaccination rate in both places is around 9%.
In Nevada, where about 8% have received both shots, Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak intends to lift most restrictions by May 1. Almost all businesses can operate at 50% capacity starting March 15, which is critical to a travel-powered economy. Visitors to Las Vegas, nearly 1.3 million in January, were off 64% from a year ago, and the convention business was nonexistent.
In California, about 87% of the population, or almost 35 million people, live under the state’s tightest restrictions, with closed indoor restaurants, theaters, gyms and nonessential offices. San Francisco on Wednesday started to break free as its cases ease, allowing indoor dining at 25% capacity after almost two months of takeout only, along with limited gym and museum attendance.
Newsom, the Democratic governor facing a March 17 recall petition deadline, wants classrooms open for kindergarten and first and second grades by April 1. Districts are set to get as much as $6.6 billion in incentives.
Abbott, the Texas governor, on Wednesday said mandates “are no longer needed” because hospitalizations were declining and vaccinations were increasing.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, urged residents to continue to wear masks until the city is fully vaccinated. “We should not be creating situations that will cause chaos, conflict, and confusion,” he said.
Macy’s, Target and some other major retailers said they would require customers and employees to wear masks. And in a state where cases spiked after Abbott reopened bars in October, some restaurateurs said they will continue safety practices.
“It’s not going to be that much longer when everybody will get vaccinated, and then we can make a judgment depending on what the medical personnel say,” said Tracy Vaught, co-founder of Houston-based H Town Restaurant Group, with four locations.
Alli Jarrett, owner of Harold’s Restaurant Bar and Terrace in Houston, said she was in a tough spot.
“No one wants to be the mask police,” she said, but her workers were unvaccinated. “We can’t operate a business if we don’t have staff and we can’t operate a business if people can’t come and eat.”
Robert Kim-Farley, a professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the pullbacks could be devastating.
“If people experiencing pandemic fatigue just start going back to pre-Covid behaviors of large indoor gatherings, no masking, no physical distancing -- this would be a setup for a fourth surge,” Kim-Farley said.
Some in the newly restriction-free states say any such uptick would hit Black and Hispanic people especially hard. Some minority groups have suffered infection rates that consistently outpaced those in White communities, and deaths in some Black counties were triple those of comparable White areas.
Almost 11% of White Texans have received one or both vaccines, compared with 5% for Blacks and Hispanics, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The disparity is similar in Mississippi, the poorest U.S. state, where the average household income is almost 30% less than the national figure of $62,800.
Mayor Johnnie Thomas of Glendora, Mississippi, said in an interview that Black residents “haven’t had a fair shake at the shots.”
“This reopening of the state, calling for masks not to be worn -- it’s devastating,” Thomas said.
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