Texas is ending its mask mandate on Wednesday, one week after Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced that the state would lift its COVID-19 restrictions.
Abbott’s move makes Texas the largest state to lift its requirement for face coverings. He attributed the move to an increasing vaccination pace and a low statewide positivity rate.
While The Lone Star State joins more than a dozen others without a statewide mask mandate, federal officials and other local leaders are urging caution and stressing the importance of continued mask use to further drive down the number of cases.
"The very simple step of wearing masks continues to be the best single mitigation strategy we have to stop the spread of COVID-19," Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said at a press conference in his state on Tuesday.
Hogan announced that Maryland would join other states including Connecticut in easing capacity limits in restaurants and indoor recreation, but said he would keep his state's mask mandate in effect.
Texas on Tuesday reported 3,744 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing its total to 2.3 million since the pandemic began. It also reported 167 new fatalities tied to the virus, bringing its COVID-19 death toll to 44,650.
The state has administered nearly 7 million doses of coronavirus vaccines. According to the state’s vaccination data, 4.5 million people have received their first dose and nearly 2.5 million people have been fully vaccinated.
Still, Abbott’s move has drawn scrutiny amid a larger feeling of “pandemic fatigue” as the nation has been under coronavirus restrictions for one year. Masks mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions had become politicized as former President Trump’s administration sought to downplay the extent of the pandemic last year.
Some businesses in Texas are continuing to require customers to wear face coverings. And the Austin City Council said Tuesday that businesses in Travis County must still require face masks even as Abbott's order takes effect.
“If state officials don’t want to do their jobs protecting people from the virus, then we will,” tweeted Austin City Council member Gregorio Casar, writing the council is “committed to saving lives.”
COVID-19 cases have been falling nationwide, from roughly 250,000 cases per day in January, and appear to remain steady at around 70,000 per day.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on Tuesday that 93.6 million vaccine doses have been administered, with roughly 9 percent of the population fully vaccinated.
While numbers have improved, experts agree the nation is not quite ready to fully lift coronavirus restrictions until more of the population is vaccinated. Cases have leveled off, and could be increasing again.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a news conference last week that she was concerned about Texas easing coronavirus restrictions in light of these trends.
“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” she said.
Some governors have expressed hesitancy about lifting certain COVID-19 rules, despite improving conditions.
Two days after Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) announced they would ease coronavirus restrictions, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) extended her state’s mask mandate by one month.
“Even with this positive news, Dr. Harris & I believe more Alabamians need to get their 1st shot before we take a step some other states have taken to remove the mask order altogether & lift all restrictions," Ivey said on Twitter March 4, referring to the state's health director. "Folks, we’re not there yet, but we're getting close.”
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R)—who last Friday eased capacity limits on bars, restaurants, stores and small businesses—also said he didn’t understand why Texas and Mississippi were in a hurry to get rid of state mask mandates.
“If we continue to vaccinate more and more and more, we'll get rid of the mask. But I don't know really what the big rush to get rid of the mask is because these masks have saved a lot, a lot of lives," Justice told CNN last week.
"If we don’t watch out, we can make some mistakes," he said.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) also said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that his state will rescind health orders once the state records 50 new cases per 100,000 people every two weeks.
“I have a great deal of respect for my colleagues in Texas and Mississippi,” DeWine said. “But in Ohio, we can't give up the defense. We have found these masks work exceedingly well.”