Texas Lifts Mask Mandate Despite Dire Warnings About Fourth Wave
(Bloomberg) -- Texas Governor Greg Abbott lifted the mask mandate and other anti-pandemic restrictions, defying warnings from health officials about the perils of dropping those precautions too soon.
Effective March 10, all businesses will be allowed to open at full capacity, Abbott said during a media briefing in Lubbock on Tuesday. Although his executive order allows counties to reimpose anti-virus rules should hospitalizations surge, it forbids them from jailing or fining scofflaws.
“This will kill Texans,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “Our country’s infectious disease specialists have warned that we should not put our guard down even as we make progress towards vaccinations.”
Abbott acted at what federal authorities warn is a critical juncture in the pandemic that has killed 516,000 Americans: While hospitalizations and caseloads have dropped in Texas and nationwide, U.S. vaccinations are not yet widespread enough to provide so-called herd immunity, and new, easier-to-spread variants of Covid-19 are proliferating.
Abbot’s move drew immediate criticism from Democrats while giving the Republican governor an opportunity to shift attention from the weather-induced blackouts that crippled the state two weeks ago. Texas’ deregulated electric market, a product of the state’s GOP leadership, is at the center of blame for the failures.
The announcement flies in the face of pleas by federal health officials for a continuation of masking and other anti-virus protocols.
Abbott’s anti-pandemic measures also have grated on his conservative electoral base, which saw them as government overreach, and may have wounded any presidential aspirations. He received 0% of the vote in a presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference this past weekend.
“At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a Monday briefing. “Please stay strong in your conviction, continue wearing your well-fitted mask and taking the other public health prevention actions that we know work.”
Walensky warned that a fourth wave of Covid-19 infections could be in the offing without continued vigilance. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden reinforced her admonition.
“I urge all Americans to please keep washing hands, stay socially distanced, wear masks,” Biden said. “Now is not the time to let our guard down.”
New Covid-19 cases in Texas dropped to a five-month low of 1,637 on Monday, state health department figures showed. Virus hospitalizations slipped to the smallest tally since Oct. 28.
“Too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities; too many small-business owners have struggled to pay their bills,” the governor said. “It is now time to open Texas 100%.”
Earlier Tuesday, Abbott said in a tweet that Texas is administering more than 1 million Covid-19 vaccinations weekly.
“Texans have mastered the daily habits to avoid getting Covid,” Abbott said.
As of Sunday, none of the state’s 22 trauma-service areas had more than 15% of hospital capacity occupied by virus patients. The pandemic has claimed almost 43,000 Texans since it emerged in early 2020.
“An irresponsible decision guided by political expedience and nothing else,” Houston City Controller Chris B. Brown said in a tweet. “Not only will this set us back in the battle against #COVID19 in the region, it will likely prolong the economic pain brought on by the pandemic.”
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