LUBBOCK, Texas -- Gov. Greg Abbott will end Texas' statewide mask mandate and allow all businesses to reopen at full capacity as of next Wednesday, March 10.
"It is now time to open Texas 100%," Abbott said at a news conference Tuesday. "People and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate any longer."
"Covid has not suddenly disappeared," he added. "But it is clear from the recoveries, from the vaccinations, from the reduced hospitalizations, and from the safe practices that Texas are using, that state mandates are no longer needed."
Abbott's latest executive order is effective March 10, overriding a previous executive order on business restrictions issued in October. Meanwhile, the state's mask mandate has been in effect since the summer — and Texans (88%) had grown widely comfortable with it, according to polling from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune.
Businesses may still limit capacity or implement safety protocols at their own discretion, Abbott said, adding that there is nothing stopping businesses from requiring employees or customers to wear masks.
He also urged Texans to still exercise "personal vigilance" in navigating the pandemic. "It's just that now state mandates are no longer needed," he explained.
The new order does indicate that if hospitalization rates in an area exceeds 15% bed capacity for seven days, county judges would have the authority to re-implement local restrictions, according to Abbott.
However, Abbott specified that "under no circumstance" can a county judge jail someone for not following their orders. They also cannot impose penalties for failure to wear a mask. And if local restrictions are triggered, businesses still must be allowed to operate at 50% capacity at the minimum.
Health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have cautioned against states reopening too quickly. At a White House briefing recently, Fauci warned against easing restrictions until the U.S. baseline average of new infections is lower.
"We have to carefully look at what happens over the next week or so with those numbers, before you start making the understandable need to relax on certain restrictions," Fauci said. "Watch it closely, and be prepared to react according to what actually happens.”
As of Tuesday, Texas had reported 2.6 million infections and 43,918 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
During his announcement, Abbott touted the state's positivity rate as being "under 9%," but that is still nearly double the 5% threshold recommended by the World Health Organization.
While Abbott also voiced optimism that vaccinations will accelerate soon, so far in Texas there is 6.8% of the population that has received both doses of the vaccine. That is lower than the national average of 7.9%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Texas will become the most populous state in the country not to have a mask mandate. More than 30 states currently have one in place.
The absence of statewide restrictions should not be a signal to Texans to stop wearing masks, social distancing, and doing other things to keep the virus from spreading, said Dr. John Carlo, a member of the Texas Medical Association’s Covid-19 task force.