Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he will soon lift the state’s mask mandate, even as federal officials have urged states not to abandon COVID-19 precautions and cited a slowing drop in cases nationwide.
“Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared, but it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations, and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed,” Abbott, a Republican, said in a statement.
Texas will join a dozen other U.S. states that do not currently have a statewide requirement to wear masks, including neighboring Oklahoma, according to a tally by the National Academy for State Health Policy.
The governor’s executive order, which will take effect on March 10, also lifts capacity restrictions imposed on the state’s businesses. Local officials can still impose “mitigation strategies” if hospitalizations in their area surge, but are banned from punishing residents who defy mask guidance and cannot limit restaurant capacity to less than 50%.
Cases and deaths from COVID-19 had plummeted after a surge that followed the winter holiday season nationwide, including in Texas. The governor justified his decision by pointing to the state’s drop in case counts, noting that daily case counts are the lowest since last November.
But health data also shows the state continues to record worrying new cases of COVID-19 and hospital admissions, making it one of just three “red states” — states with the most concerning test positivity data — in the latest federal guidance. And as states have eased restrictions, the Biden administration has repeatedly warned that the country’s drop in COVID-19 cases has slowed amid reports of faster-spreading mutant variants of the virus.
“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained. These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on Monday.
“Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” added Walensky.
At a press conference Tuesday announcing his decision, Governor Abbott cautioned that lifting the mask requirement “does not end personal responsibility.”
“Personal vigilance to follow the safe standards is still needed to contain COVID. It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed,” the governor said.