AUSTIN — Texans will no longer be required to wear a face mask in public and all businesses can open at full capacity starting next week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday.
The Republican made the sweeping move — on Texas Independence Day — even as public health officials say restrictions are still critical to control the pandemic, which has killed more than 42,500 Texans.
Abbott cited growing vaccination rates in his decision, although fewer than 2 million Texans are fully inoculated against COVID-19. He also pointed to declining hospitalizations, even though experts say those gains are slowing and could reverse.
The announcement puts Texas at odds with federal experts, who have said that even as vaccinations rise, people still need to wear masks, avoid crowds and socially distance.
Texans will be in charge of managing their own individual safety, Abbott said, using practices learned over the pandemic.
Starting next Wednesday, all businesses will be allowed to open at 100% capacity for the first time in nearly a year. While Abbott noted businesses can still choose to limit customers or require masks, the change opens the door to potentially massive social gatherings, including at sports stadiums, concert halls and other large venues.
“Too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities. Too many small business owners have struggled to pay their bills. This must end,” Abbott said at a crowded restaurant in Lubbock, where many around him went without masks.
“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” he said to cheers from an audience that included members of the local chamber of commerce.
But the move faced pushback from public health experts. While new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have fallen from a peak in January, levels of disease are still high. As of this week, about 5,600 people across Texas are hospitalized with the virus. The state has been averaging about 5,000 new cases per day over the last week.
Rolling back the restrictions, especially before spring break, is risky because that’s when people typically travel, gather in groups and go out to bars, said Diana Cervantes, an epidemiologist at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.
“We don’t want a spring break spike,” she said. “Right now we’re at a critical cusp point where things could definitely turn around. It could either go up or down.”
Letting up on social distancing and masking also increases the likelihood that new, more dangerous variants of the virus will emerge.
Stephen Love, President and CEO of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council, pleaded with Abbott to reconsider the move.
“Governor Abbott’s decision to remove the mask mandate in Texas is very unfortunate,” Love said in a statement.
County judges will be able to impose their own coronavirus restrictions if COVID-19 hospitalizations rise above 15% in their region for seven straight days. But as of Tuesday, no area in Texas met that criteria, according to state data.
The region that includes Dallas and Tarrant Counties was at 8.7% as of Monday.
Dallas County judge Clay Jenkins chastised Abbott on Twitter for lifting “all his state orders designed to protect you and those you care about” from coronavirus on the same day the county’s Covid-19 death toll topped 3,000. “You should focus on what doctors, facts and science say is safe; not on what Gov. says is legal!”
Moments ago, on the day 25 new deaths raise @dallascountytx death toll above 3k, @GovAbbott lifted all his state orders designed to protect you and those you care about from #COVID19. You should focus on what doctors,facts and science say is safe; not on what Gov. says is legal! pic.twitter.com/6dS5LrpNOY
— Clay Jenkins (@JudgeClayJ) March 2, 2021
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said he would remove the county’s mask mandate Tuesday, in light of Abbott’s announcement, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Democrats in the state Legislature were quick to slam Abbott’s decision, pointing to a recent warning from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that now is not the time to relax restrictions.
“If the last year has taught us anything, it is that we need to listen to doctors and scientists more, not less,” said Rep. Chris Turner, Democrat-Grand Prairie, who chairs the Texas House Democratic Caucus. “Unfortunately, Governor Abbott is desperate to distract from his recent failures during the winter storm and is trying to change the subject.”
At the White House on Tuesday, press secretary Jen Psaki was asked if Biden is lobbying Abbott and other governors to keep safety precautions in place.
“Having traveled with the president to Texas on Friday, he made clear that we need to be vigilant,” Psaki said. “We need to remain vigilant. We are still at war with the virus.”
Abbott, who is up for re-election in 2022, has been facing pressure from some within his own party to repeal restrictions they say infringe on their personal freedoms.
Most Texas have been required to wear a face mask in public since July. Restaurants and bars have been limited in the number of customers they can have inside since last spring, after the first cases of the coronavirus were detected in Texas.
Right now, many businesses in Texas, such as restaurants, bowling alleys and movie theaters, are open at 75% of capacity. They must scale back when at least 15% of hospital beds in the region are taken up by COVID-19 patients for seven days straight.
“You were forced to do this because WE THE PEOPLE stood up to your tyranny,” Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who made national headlines for defying state shutdown orders last spring, wrote on Twitter Tuesday. This weekend, Luther criticized Abbott’s response to the pandemic on a national stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida.
Public health experts say masks have been critical to slowing the spread of the virus while allowing people to go out in public, work at stores and restaurants, or attend school, because the disease is largely transmitted through the air.
Crowded, indoor gatherings have been shown to be especially dangerous venues for spreading the virus.
A recent report from the CDC suggested that exposure to airborne virus decreased by about 95% when both an infected person and a non-infected person wore masks. Some experts have recently advocated wearing two masks as more transmissible variants have emerged.
Other recent research has also reinforced the notion that merely staying six feet away from other people does not guarantee safety, especially indoors, making masks and good ventilation all the more important for slowing spread of the virus.
Thirty-four states across the county require people to wear masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to AARP.
“Today’s announcement does not abandon the state practices that Texans have mastered over the past year,” Abbott said Tuesday. “Instead, it is a reminder that each person has their own role to play in their own personal safety.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci recently suggested in an interview on CNN that people might need to keep wearing masks until 2022.
The CDC recommends that even people who are fully vaccinated continue to wear masks, avoid crowds and socially distance.
Last week, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned that the decline in cases nationwide from record highs in January has slowed, and possibly even flattened out.
Variants of the virus that are more transmissible are also spreading. Walensky said last week at a White House press briefing that the so-called UK variant accounted for up to 10% of new cases in the U.S., up from 1% to 4% a few weeks earlier.
“We may be done with the virus, but clearly the virus is not done with us,” Walensky said. “I know people are tired and they want to get back to life, to normal, but we’re not there yet.”