Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday it’s time to “open Texas 100%” and end the statewide mask order, citing declining hospitalizations across the state as more people are vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Abbott issued a new executive order, which will take effect March 10 and rescind most of his earlier orders, including restrictions on business occupancy and the July 2 statewide mask order.
“To be clear, COVID has not suddenly disappeared,” Abbott said, but adding “state mandates are no longer needed.”
“Texas is in a far better position now than when I issued my last executive order back in October,” Abbott said, referring to his edict allowing bars to reopen under certain circumstances. Cases spiked after he eased business restrictions in the fall.
Public health experts and federal health officials said the move comes too early and that the coronavirus still poses a grave danger, with not enough people vaccinated to significantly slow the spread of the disease.
There’s also a chance that some variants could be “somewhat resistant” to the vaccines, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
On Monday, Walensky warned that states should not lift coronavirus restrictions as the new, more contagious variants spread across the country. Texas will join 15 states that lifted mask mandates or never adopted one in the first place.
“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Walensky said. “I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from Covid-19.”
Shortly after Abbott spoke Tuesday, the Texas Hospital Association issued a statement urging Texans to continue wearing masks in public: “We know that it works. It protects health care workers and the people around you. More infectious variants are circulating in Texas, and millions more people need to be vaccinated. We should still be doing everything we can to protect each other.”
Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, echoed that caution on Monday. It’s too early to tell whether the winter storm, which saw thousands sheltering in warming centers and others’ homes, would impact the spread of COVID-19, he said.
“Regardless, we’re still seeing too many new cases and people in the hospital, and any rebound from now would be a problem,” Van Deusen told the American-Statesman. “We’re making good progress in getting people vaccinated and still need people to take precautions as that continues.”
Abbott said Tuesday that business owners can continue to require masks on their premises, restrict occupancy, and impose other coronavirus safety measures, but that local governments cannot force them to do so.
“It is their business, and they get to choose to operate their business the way they want to. At this time, however, people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate,” he said.
Abbott, who is fully vaccinated, made the announcement at Montelongo’s Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, as a room of people, most not wearing masks, applauded each pronouncement.
“Now, Texans have mastered the daily habits to avoid getting COVID,” he said.
Abbott touted the state’s vaccination rollout, and hours before the event, he said the increased vaccinations are a “big reason” why the number of COVID-19 patients continue to decline — now below 6,000 statewide.
“Today Texas will report a new one day record for the number of people receiving vaccines—more than 216,000,” he tweeted. “We are now providing more than 1 million vaccines a week. This is a big reason why hospitalizations are at the lowest level in four months.”
Most Texas businesses, including restaurants, have been required to keep occupancy rates at 75%. Businesses in areas where coronavirus patients make up more than 15% of available beds were required to reduce occupancy to 50%. Bars in those areas had to close and elective medical procedures halted. Two months ago, much of the the state was under those restrictions. As of Friday, no region exceeded the 15% threshold.
Abbott’s new order will allow all businesses to expand occupancy rates to 100%. However, county officials may use “COVID mitigation strategies” if coronavirus hospitalizations rise above 15% of an area’s total bed capacity for seven straight days, Abbott said.
Warning from health experts
Health experts greeted Abbott’s announcement with alarm.
Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, said a better time to remove restrictions would have been once all Texans have an opportunity to be vaccinated.
Now, she said the onus is on individuals to protect each other and “it’s not a free for all.”
Diana Fite, Texas Medical Association president and Houston-area emergency doctor, said the lifting of mandates could result in an uptick in cases.
“It really just depends on how many Texas citizens decide to continue to be vigilant about taking care of the masking and the social distancing and washing hands,” Fite told the Statesman. “We can keep it at bay if enough people will do that.”
Bay Scoggin, public health campaigns director for TexPIRG, a public interest advocacy group, said less than 6% of Texans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, far short of the 75% to 85% recommended by health experts to effectively neutralize the virus.
“Lifting safety measures that work to curb the spread of the virus, like mask wearing, is one of the worst things Gov. Abbott can do right now,” Scoggin said. “We should have learned by now that rushing to reopen businesses and ease restrictions across the state, before fully tamping down the virus, will lead to more unnecessary deaths.”
More than 3.5 million Texans have received at least one dose of the coronavirus, or 12.7% of the state’s population. Nearly 1.9 million Texans are fully vaccinated.
Abbott said last week the state is poised to broaden vaccinations, although state health officials haven’t yet said who will be next in line to receive the vaccine. Frontline health care workers, those 65 and older and people 16 and older with chronic health conditions are currently eligible.
Texas saw skyrocketing cases, hospitalizations and deaths in December and the first half of January, which state health officials largely attributed to holiday gatherings.
During that time, Abbott did not move to dial back any coronavirus restrictions, promising “no more shutdowns” in Texas.
Abbott, a Republican, has caught criticism from members of both parties throughout the pandemic, from Republicans who said his restrictions have gone too far, and from Democrats who say they didn’t go far enough.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said Tuesday Abbott has charted an “extraordinarily dangerous” path.
“This will kill Texans. Our country’s infectious disease specialists have warned that we should not put our guard down even as we make progress towards vaccinations. Abbott doesn’t care,” Hinojosa said.
“Abbott removing a statewide mandate while preaching personal responsibility to prevent the spread of COVID is an abdication of his own personal and professional responsibility to keep Texans safe,” he added.
But a leading business group praised the move, saying Abbott is striking the right balance “by removing the heavy hand of government” and allowing businesses to operate as desired.
“Today’s decision will unleash the full might of the Texas economy and create more and better-paying jobs for hardworking Texans,” said Glenn Hamer, head of the Texas Association of Business. “This will lead to a full economic recovery not only for our state, but the entire country.”
And Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said the loosening of state restrictions offered hope after a difficult year for Texas families.
“With greater access to vaccinations, better treatment options, and decreasing hospitalization rates, the Texas approach empowers citizens to exercise personal responsibility about their health in the fight against COVID-19,” Phelan said.
State Reps. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, and Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin sent letters to Abbott, urging the governor to prioritize public health and preserve the mask requirement in Texas.
“To prevent additional struggles and suffering, we need consistency and clarity, not carelessness and confusion,” Raymond wrote. “If we all do our part to wear face coverings, we can ultimately get back to business and realize a return to normalcy.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued a similar letter Tuesday.
“We believe it would be premature and harmful to do anything to lose widespread adoption of this preventative measure,” he wrote.
Staff writers Aria Jones and Chuck Lindell contributed to this report.