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With just 7% of Texans fully vaccinated and another Covid-19 surge potentially imminent, Texas is flinging open businesses to full capacity while simultaneously ending its highly politicized mask mandate, the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, announced on Tuesday.
“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” a maskless Abbott declared to cheers at a crowded restaurant in the city of Lubbock.
When Abbott’s policy changes go into effect next week, Texas will be the most populous state in the country that does not require residents to wear masks. Restaurants and other businesses can choose to maintain their own mask policies, but without government backing to do so.
“We had a chance maybe by the end of the summer of getting a handle on this pandemic. This governor is just going to throw all of that out and put us back to the stone ages,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chair of the Texas Democratic party. “This is crazy.”
Other states and cities have likewise started rolling back precautions. In Mississippi – another Republican stronghold – Governor Tate Reeves also announced on Tuesday that the state was lifting rules for businesses and doing away with county mask mandates.
In other states and cities, including Michigan, Louisiana, and the city of San Francisco, California, officials are also lifting some restrictions, albeit not with the sweeping approach of Mississippi or Texas.
Abbott’s announcement – which comes after about 43,000 Texans have died from the virus, and while many Texans are still ineligible for the vaccine – sparked immediate and vehement backlash, from Democratic mayors to workers’ advocates infuriated that Texans of color will once again be the hardest hit.
“I think this is a slap in the face of working people, especially frontline workers, who have been risking their lives,” said Emily Timm, the co-executive director of Workers Defense Action Fund.
Local leaders in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin – Texas’s biggest cities – called on Abbott “not to create any ambiguity or uncertainty about the importance of wearing a mask by changing the rules at this time”, Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, said in a statement.
“We as a state should be guided by science and data, which says we should keep the mask mandate. Too much is at stake to compromise the positive outcomes we have seen with over-confidence,” Adler said.
The policy changes also follow a devastating winter storm that pummeled Texas mere weeks ago, in a crisis made worse because of the state’s bungled emergency management.
Some critics say Abbott is using this moment to distract from that catastrophic failure, while also playing politics with lives to curry favor with a far-right Republican base that turned against him after he implemented coronavirus restrictions last summer.
“He’s made a decision based upon politics,” Hinojosa said.
As most meaningful coronavirus-related restrictions disappear from Texas, the state is simultaneously staring down what could easily be a series of super-spreader events over spring break.
South Texas beach towns in Corpus Christi and the already hard-hit Rio Grande Valley have long been popular destinations among party-going college students from around the country, and as tourists pack into bars and restaurants, none of them will have to wear masks or socially distance.
“You think we had a horrible spike on Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July, and during the holidays?” Hinojosa said. “The spike that this state will experience in coronavirus cases will be extremely high – and will cause many, many more deaths than any responsible governor should have allowed.”