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 abandonprecautions and have noted 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. It's currently the most populous state without a statewide mandate.
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 business 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 last November, COVID-19 cases were surging in Texas. At the time, Governor Abbott was resisting calls to implement stricter measures to curb the spread of the virus despite spikes in hospitalizations.
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.
White House senior advisor for COVID response Andy Slavitt criticized the decision on Tuesday night, arguing that "Now's not the time to do this."
"We appreciate the challenges governors face in making all the decisions they face and we recognize that a lot of these are theirs to make," Slavitt said on MSNBC. "But the president's been very clear that we will save a lot of lives if the first 100 days — 50,000 lives, that's the estimate, if everybody wears a mask. And so we think it's critical, particularly now as we're starting to see an increase in cases in Texas, which we've seen over the last week, and particularly as we have plans now to vaccinate the country. Now's not the time to do this."
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.