By Patrick Svitek/Texas Tribune
Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he is ending Texas’ statewide mask mandate next week and will allowall businesses to operate at full capacity.
“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” Abbott said from a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, arguing that Texas has fought the coronavirus pandemic to the point that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate” any longer.
Abbott said he was rescinding “most of the earlier executive orders” he has issued over the past year to stem the spread of the virus. He said starting next Wednesday, “all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100%” and masks will no longer be required in public.
Meanwhile, the spread of the virus remains substantial across the state, with Texas averaging over 200 reported deaths a day over the last week. And while Abbott has voiced optimism that vaccinations will accelerate soon, less than 7% of Texans had been fully vaccinated as of this weekend.
Texas will become the most populous state in the country not to have a mask mandate. More than 30 states currently have one in place.
Abbott urged Texans to still exercise “personal vigilance” in navigating the pandemic. “It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed,” he said.
Currently, most businesses are permitted to operate at 75% capacity unless their region is seeing a jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations. While he was allowing businesses to fully reopen, Abbott said that people still have the right to operate how they want and can “limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols.”
Acknowledging that some local leaders remained concern about the spread of the virus in their communities, Abbott laid out a strategy that allows them to take matters into their own hands under certain circumstances. If COVID-19 hospitalizations in any of Texas’ 22 hospital regions rise above 15% of the capacity in that region for seven straight days, a county judge “may use COVID mitigation strategies in their county,” according to the governor.
However, Abbott specified that “under no circumstance” can a county judge jail someone for not following their orders. They also cannot impose penalties for failure to wear a mask. And if local restrictions are triggered, businesses still must be allowed to operate at 50% capacity at the minimum.
The move is sure to prompt outcry from local leaders in Texas’ biggest cities. Democrats swiftly denounced Abbott’s announcement, with the state party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa calling his actions “extraordinarily dangerous” and saying they “will kill Texans.”
Abbott’s critics also noted the announcement was coming in the wake of the winter weather crisis that left millions of Texans in the cold and dark, exposing deep flaws in Texas’ electrical grid under GOP leaders including Abbott.
“Unfortunately, Governor (Abbott) is desperate to distract from his recent failures to distract from his recent failures during the winter storm and is trying to change the subject,” state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement.
Abbott defended his decision by saying Texas is “far better positioned now” than when he issued his last executive order on the pandemic in October. That order set up a system under which business reopenings would automatically roll back in a hospital region if its COVID-19 patients went over 15% of capacity for seven consecutive days.
Abbott further argued that the state is in a “completely different position” than it was in when the pandemic first prompted him to take statewide action nearly a year ago. He said the state now has an “abundance” of personal protective equipment, the ability to do over 100,000 tests a day, medicines to treat coronavirus patients and wide awareness of protocols such as social distancing and hand-washing. Most importantly, he said, vaccines are available and the supply “will continue to increase rapidly,” with Texas preparing to expand the categories of people eligible to get vaccinated.
However, only 6.5% of Texans had been fully vaccinated as of Sunday, and more broadly, the current trajectory of the virus has been difficult to measure in recent days due last month’s winter storm, which forced many large counties to close their testing centers and not report any cases. Daily confirmed cases and deaths are clearly down compared to a statewide peak in January. Hospitalization data has been less disrupted, though, and has shown a consistent decline since late January.
When it comes to vaccinations, experts say Texas is a long way from reaching herd immunity. Hitting the 70% to 80% level that many estimate is needed would mean vaccinating some 22 million people, or nearly 100% of adults in the state, according to census numbers. The vaccines are currently not approved for children under 16, who make up about 23% of the population. More than 40,000 people have died in from the virus in Texas since the pandemic began.
Scientists do not yet know for sure whether or how well the vaccines prevent the spread of the virus, though some preliminary research has suggested that some vaccines might be able to do so to some extent.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that people who have received two doses of the vaccine continue to avoid crowds, stay at least 6 feet away from people who live outside their households, and wear masks to cover their nose and mouth.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease doctor, has repeatedly said that he does not know when Americans will be able to return to normal, but that they may still need to continue wearing face masks into 2022.
The absence of statewide restrictions should not be a signal to Texans to stop wearing masks, social distancing, washing their hands or doing other things to keep the virus from spreading, said Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force.
Carlo declined to react specifically to Abbott’s order, saying he had not had a chance to read it. He also expressed concern that new virus variants, specifically the U.K. variant, could still turn back the positive trends cited by Abbott.
“We’re facing unacceptably high rates, and we still hear every day about more and more people becoming sick. And it may be less than before, but it’s still too many,” Carlo said. “Even if businesses open up and even if we loosen restrictions, that does not mean we should stop what we’re doing because we’re not there yet.”
Abbott’s announcement Tuesday was not entirely surprising. He said Thursday that his office was looking at when it could lift all statewide coronavirus orders and that he would have announcements “pretty soon.”
Prior to the announcement, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a letter to Abbott asking him to keep the mask requirement in place. Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown separately sent the same letter.
“We believe it would be premature and harmful to do anything to lose widespread adoption of this preventive measure. Scientific studies have shown repeatedly that the widespread wearing of face masks slows down the virus,” the letter reads. “Especially with the arrival of new variants of the virus to Texas and our cities, with the associated spike in cases, preserving the most effective of our existing safety measures is even more important.”
Karen Brooks Harper, Chris Essig and Juan Pablo Garnham contributed reporting. This story was originally published by the Texas Tribune.
Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Tribune board chair, and the Texas Medical Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.