By PAUL J. WEBER, AP News.
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas is lifting its mask mandate, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday, making it the largest state to end an order intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that has killed more than 42,000 Texans.
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley immediately rescinded his mask order, he said in a tweet.
“Pursuant to today’s announcement by Governor Abbott, I will immediately be rescinding my Executive Order requiring face coverings on businesses and their patrons,” he said on his Twitter account.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said the discussion about the mask order for the city would be removed from the Tuesday, March 2 agenda.
In an official statement, Price called Abbott’s action “premature.”
“In light of the Governor’s Executive Order today, which I believe was premature, and an anticipated increase in vaccine supply in Texas in the coming weeks, two things are vital going forward,” she said on Twitter. “First, wek must continue taking all the same safety precautions recommended by the CDC, including mask-wearing, social distancing, hand washing, etc.” She also called for an increase in opening up the vaccine supply to more people as well as increasing testing and the vaccine supply.”
Several organizations, including the Texas Association of Business, applauded the announcement, which took place on Texas Independence Day, but on social media several businesses expressed concern about the lifting of mandates.
The Republican governor has faced sharp criticism from his party over the mandate, which was imposed eight months ago, and other COVID-19 restrictions. It was only ever lightly enforced, even during the worst outbreaks of the pandemic.
Texas will also do away with limits on the number of diners that businesses can serve indoors, said Abbott, who made the announcement at a restaurant in Lubbock. He said the new rules would take effect March 10.
“Removing statewide mandates does not end personal responsibility,” said Abbott, speaking from a crowded dining room where many of those surrounding him were not wearing masks.
“It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed,” he said.
The decision comes as governors across the U.S. have been easing coronavirus restrictions, despite warnings from health experts that the pandemic is far from over. Like the rest of the country, Texas has seen the number of cases and deaths plunge. Hospitalizations are at the lowest levels since October, and the seven-day rolling average of positive tests has dropped to about 7,600 cases, down from more than 10,000 in mid-February.
Only California and New York have reported more COVID-19 deaths than Texas.
“The fact that things are headed in the right direction doesn’t mean we have succeeded in eradicating the risk,” said Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology and director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.
She said the recent deadly winter freeze in Texas that left millions of people without power — forcing families to shelter closely with others who still had heat — could amplify transmission of the virus in the weeks ahead, although it remains too early to tell. Masks, she said, are one of the most effective strategies to curb the spread.
Abbott imposed the statewide mask mandate in July during a deadly summer surge. But enforcement was spotty at best, and some sheriffs refused to police the restrictions at all. And as the pandemic dragged on, Abbott ruled out a return to tough COVID-19 rules, arguing that lockdowns do not work.
Politically, the restrictions elevated tensions between Abbott and his own party, with the head of the Texas GOP at one point leading a protest outside the governor’s mansion. Meanwhile, mayors in Texas’ biggest cities argued that Abbott wasn’t doing enough.
Most of the country has lived under mask mandates during the pandemic, with at least 37 states requiring face coverings to some degree. But those orders are increasingly falling by the wayside: North Dakota, Montana and Iowa have also lifted mask orders in recent weeks.
Ahead of the repeal in Texas, Democratic lawmakers urged Abbott to reconsider.
“Texas will experience more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths,” state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a Democrat from the border city of Laredo, told Abbott in a letter Monday.
Laredo, whose population is predominately Latino, has endured some of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic, running out of beds in hospital intensive care units as recently as January. The international trade hub has been among Texas’ most aggressive cities in trying to blunt the spread of the virus, taking measures that have included curfews.
“Elected by the people, your most fundamental obligation is their health and safety. Please do not abrogate your duty,” Raymond said.
Fort Worth Business Press Staff contributed to this report.