The path out of the COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding in the same patchwork way that business closings and shelter-in-place orders began more than a year ago. Eager to get their economies back up and running, several states are ignoring federal guidance and lifting mask mandates, capacity requirements, and other pandemic safety measures — with Texas and Mississippi leading the way.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott announced on March 2 that he was lifting the statewide mask mandate and allowing all businesses to reopen at 100% capacity, citing increasing vaccinations and decreasing COVID-19 cases across the state.
“With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus,” Abbott wrote in his official announcement. “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent. 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.”
While Abbott ended the state’s mask mandate, he encouraged Texans to take personal responsibility and wear a mask whenever they felt it was necessary to do so and said he would personally continue wearing a mask.
This approach drew criticism from Democrats in the state, who expressed concern about the effect the changes could have on essential workers and vulnerable populations who had not yet been vaccinated and accused Abbott of prioritizing politics over public health.
“Governor Abbott’s failure to listen to science and medical advice will cost Texans their lives,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro. “This decision is reckless and dangerous—and a desperate distraction from the Governor’s dereliction of duty during the power outages. He’s putting politics above the people of Texas.”
While the statewide mask mandate is no longer in effect, courts in the Lonestar State have held that cities like Austin can continue requiring masks. As of late March, about 25% of Texans had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while cases continue to decline from a peak at the beginning of the year.
On the same day as Abbott’s announcement, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves announced that his state would also lift its mask mandate and allow businesses to fully reopen, again citing declining hospitalization and increasing vaccine distribution.
Reeves encouraged Missippians to continue wearing face masks in public and heed the advice of the state’s public health leaders. He also said that rules governing the state’s K-12 schools would remain in place.
“I am replacing our current orders with recommendations,” Reeves said. “Everyone should continue to listen to Dr. Dobbs and other health advisors for the best possible wisdom regarding how you can personally stem any risk of catching COVID. Their insight is valuable.”
The CDC expressed concern about the reopenings happening too quickly, urging governors in other states to wait a few more weeks to allow for more vaccinations and better data on new COVID-19 variants.
“So much can turn in the next few weeks, ” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing on March 3. “Cases are leveling off just as the rates of B117 are ready to hijack our success.”
According to the New York Times vaccine tracking database, Mississippi has one of the lowest vaccination rates of any state in the U.S. and has only used 68% of its allotted vaccine doses thus far.
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