Texas governor lifts state's mask mandate, business restrictions

Healthcare workers walk through the Texas Medical Center during a shift change as cases of Covid-19 spike in Houston, Texas July 8, 2020. — Reuters pic
Healthcare workers walk through the Texas Medical Center during a shift change as cases of Covid-19 spike in Houston, Texas July 8, 2020. — Reuters pic

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HOUSTON, March 3 ― Texas governor Greg Abbott issued the most sweeping rollback of coronavirus restrictions of any US state yesterday, lifting a mask mandate and saying most businesses may open at full capacity next week.

Abbott's executive order comes as many US states and major cities seeing a sharp decline in coronavirus infections and hospitalisations begin to ease the unprecedented lockdowns put in place a year ago.

“It is now time to open Texas 100 per cent,” Abbott, a first-term Republican, told a news conference. He said the order would take full effect on March 10.

The order lifts all mask requirements statewide and forbids local authorities from penalising residents who do not wear a face covering. It removes all restrictions on businesses in counties without a high number of hospitalisations.

The move comes as Abbott's administration recovers from the fallout of a deep freeze across the region last month, which triggered power blackouts across the state. Millions of Texans were left shivering in the dark as frigid temperatures caught the state's grid operator and utilities ill-prepared for skyrocketing power demand.

Local officials can still apply limits to businesses where hospitalizations remain high, according to the order, but were prohibited from mandating that they operate at less than 50 per cent capacity.

The governor said he was able to lift the restrictions because Texas, the third most-populous US state, had administered nearly 5.7 million vaccine shots to its 29 million residents.

According to Abbott's office, by the end of March every senior who wants a vaccine would be able to get one.

The decision puts Texas in conflict with US President Joe Biden, a Democrat who has urged Americans to keep taking Covid-19 precautions, including wearing masks, until vaccinations have fully tamped down the virus.

Biden administration critical

“I hope the governor rethinks this. It's only a small piece of cloth that's needed,” White House Covid-19 adviser Andy Slavitt told CNN, referring to masks. “I don't think it affects the economy of the state.”

As of yesterday, 35 US states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, still mandate that residents wear face masks in public. Mississippi also lifted its face-covering order yesterday.

“We need to remain vigilant. We are still at war with the virus, the president of course will continue to convey that publicly, and also privately in his conversations,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a White House news briefing.

More than 51 million Americans, or 15 per cent of the total US population, have been given at least one vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Biden said yesterday that through an agreement for Merck & Co Inc to help make rival Johnson & Johnson's Covid-19 vaccine, his administration had secured enough for every adult in the United States to be inoculated by the end of May.

Covid-19 infections have plummeted in recent weeks across much of the world, including the United States.

According to a Reuters tally, roughly 68,240 new cases have been reported on average each day this week, or 27 per cent of the peak daily average reached on January 7. The United States has recorded 28,681,793 infections and 513,721 coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic began.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said that effective immediately, bars, restaurants and other businesses can increase indoor capacity to 50per cent and remain open until 1am.

“We have made incredible progress in recent weeks and months, and I thank our business community for their ongoing commitment to saving lives,” Lightfoot said in a written statement. ― Reuters

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