Reeves and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) rescinded coronavirus restrictions Tuesday, doing away with mask mandates and allowing businesses to operate at 100 percent capacity. The impact was immediate in both states and beyond, with “masks required” signs coming down, businesses trying to navigate the lack of restrictions, local officials pushing back and the White House weighing in.
President Biden blasted the decisions by Abbott and Reeves as “Neanderthal thinking.” In Austin, local officials called an early-morning news conference to beg residents to continue wearing masks, while leaders in the Fort Worth area dropped a face covering mandate they were planning to extend into May.
The removal of restrictions alarmed public health officials, who worried the actions could accelerate a trend of states peeling back efforts to curb virus transmission, sending cases creeping upward as the country tries to get to the end of the pandemic.
Weeks of hard-won, steep declines in infections stalled last week, holding at an alarmingly high average of more than 67,000 new cases per day. That’s above the caseload of the summer and early fall, before a winter surge sent daily new infections soaring to a high of about 248,000 per day. Pointing to the level of cases still being recorded and the rise in contagious new variants of the virus, federal health officials have been urging states not to remove restrictions too hastily.
But recent weeks have seen a flurry of decisions to increase occupancy limits on restaurants and bars and ease restrictions on stadiums and theaters, with announcements in a dozen states, from Michigan to New York to California. The nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, called state orders to lift mask mandates and restrictions “ill-advised" Wednesday, pointing to the plateauing infection numbers.
Texas and Mississippi drew extra scrutiny because they removed nearly all safeguards — Abbott declared on Twitter that his state was “OPEN 100 %. EVERYTHING.” — and went further than many others in eliminating mask requirements. The Republican governors of Iowa and Montana also stopped requiring masks within the past few weeks, but they remain mandatory in 35 states, along with D.C. and Puerto Rico, according to AARP. Scientists view them as a critical tool in controlling the virus.
“This is not just about the decision of one state because it affects all of us. People in Texas will get on planes and drive. The more the virus spreads there, the more chance the virus will mutate,” said Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. “We saw how this played out this summer. These are not just the same mistakes we’re making, but the same players making them. It just leaves you speechless.”
The divergence has forced many Americans to make a decision: Continue wearing masks and keeping a safe distance or take the newly relaxed measures as encouragement to return to something resembling normalcy?
Kizek, 42, and Breland, 66, were eating at Papitos, a popular Mexican restaurant that on Wednesday began requiring face coverings only for employees. Kizek said she “of course” wore a mask when they were required. But she was excited that Reeves ended the mandate.
“Numbers are going down like he said,” Kizek said. “I just feel like it’s time to get back to somewhat of a normal life.”
Others at the restaurant made the opposite call. While having a celebratory lunch after a morning of job interviews, Jailyn Myers, 22, and Ollivera Hutton, 23, both donned masks. Hutton said she might start wearing two.
“It’s still around even though people are not talking about it as much,” she said. “I’m going to keep my mask on and might double up if I have to because there are still different strands coming around. I honestly don’t know why he decided to.”
In lifting the restrictions, Reeves and Abbott both pointed to declining case numbers, along with the availability of vaccines. Reeves said in a series of Twitter posts that, with infections falling, his administration was “getting out of the business of telling people what they can and cannot do.” Abbott said during a Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate” and that recent progress made clear that mandates were no longer necessary.
According to the Austin American-Statesman, the commissioner of Texas’s Department of State Health Services said he did not speak to Abbott ahead of the removal of restrictions. Two of Abbott’s three other medical advisers also said they were not contacted before the governor lifted restrictions, according to the paper.
“Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others,” one of the advisers, Mark McClellan, a Duke University professor of business, medicine, and policy, told the paper.
But while cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all fallen dramatically in Mississippi and Texas since January — like in much of the country — the numbers remain at relatively high levels compared with the fall, just before the winter surge.
In recent days, the daily numbers of new infections and deaths have markedly increased in both states, although those numbers have been heavily affected by last month’s winter storm that left large parts of both states without power and water, disrupting testing and data reporting, as well as vaccinations.
The two states also rank far behind others in vaccine distribution, with Texas 49th and Mississippi 47th for the number of people per capita who have received at least one dose, according to Washington Post data.
The announcement lifting restrictions left some Texas cities scrambling. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said he believed Abbott’s decision would lead to more deaths, adding that “when you combine telling people they don’t need to wear masks anymore with 100 percent capacity at gyms, bars, restaurants and concerts, that is the perfect recipe for community spread.”
In Fort Worth, the city council was on the verge of voting Tuesday to extend its mask mandate until May. But when officials heard the governor’s announcement, they gave up on the idea.
“We ended up just pulling it from the agenda because it’s a moot point. There’s no way to enforce it even if we passed it. The governor’s order supersedes ours,” said Mayor Betsy Price, a Republican who described Abbott’s decision as “premature.”
For months, the city’s tourism bureau had been giving out signs for businesses showing the outline of a person wearing a cowboy hat and mask that read: “Y’all wear a mask. It’s required.” On Wednesday morning, officials hurried to revise it to a much more vague “Stay strong, together we win.”
There’s still a picture of a mask on the sign, Price said, “but obviously we can’t require it now. Only thing we can do is encourage personal responsibility.”
Businesses, too, grappled with how to react. Several large companies, including Target and Starbucks, announced they would continue requiring masks inside their stores in states that no longer mandate them, according to the Wall Street Journal. H-E-B, a Texas grocery chain, said it will continue asking customers to wear masks, though its employees will not engage in confrontations over them.
Gina Spagnola, president and CEO of the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce, said she cried tears of joy after hearing Abbott’s announcement.
“It’s wonderful news. It was a great day yesterday — there were lots of tears and joyful people, but they’re not taking it lightly,” she said. “We feel ready, honestly. Our businesses have suffered, as everyone has, and it’s been a year.”
Others said they worried over how to keep employees safe and whether they will be able to continue enforcing mask-wearing now that the state no longer requires it. Glenn Mier, a Texas restaurant owner who serves as president of the Coastal Bend Restaurant Association, worried about how to rapidly adapt to the change. He called an emergency board meeting to discuss concerns.
“In the beginning, we felt like we had to be the police — and we’re trained to be hospitable,” Mier said. “Over time, it became easier because people accepted it. But with the mandate out the window overnight, I assume there’s going to be people who will be obstinate about it.”
At an Austin convenience store called the Bread Basket, owner Abraham Rahim said the governor’s announcement wouldn’t change operations. He and his family own 17 stores throughout Austin, he said, and in a family meeting Tuesday night, they all decided to keep their mask mandates and social distancing requirements in place.
“Coronavirus is not finished,” Rahim said, his face covered in a red-and-blue fabric mask. “We are still adopting mask requirements and are worried about our employees and families. I think these politicians are playing some games, and we pay the price.”
Until a wide swath of the population is inoculated, research has proved masks to be among the most effective tools in decreasing the virus’s transmission.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released in November compared 81 counties in Kansas that chose not to enact a mask mandate with 24 counties that did. At the time, infections were rising across the state, but the rates had been even higher in the 24 counties that opted to require masks. Within two months, the counties with mandates had stopped the runaway growth and began decreasing infections. Meanwhile, cases in the 81 counties with no mandates kept increasing.
The effect of mask mandates is so strong that some modelers include them when projecting the deaths and infections a state will suffer in coming months. Texas and Mississippi’s actions this week have caused many to revise those estimates.
Coupling the repeal of mask orders with the removal of capacity limits at indoor venues could make for “a killer combination,” said Thomas Russo, chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
“Close spaces that are crowded with poor ventilation is the feeding ground for this virus,” he said. “By lifting both of them simultaneously, you’re just asking the virus to go ahead and do its thing that it’s already demonstrated it’s so good at.”
Fowler reported from Flowood, Miss., and Moravec from Austin. Shammas and Wan reported from Washington. Jacqueline Dupree, Amy Goldstein and Fenit Nirappil in Washington contributed to this report.