Texas’ top health official said Wednesday that Gov. Greg Abbott (R) did not consult him before announcing that the state would become the largest in the nation to lift its COVID-19 restrictions.
Abbott said Tuesday that he would end the state’s mask mandate and that all businesses could operate at full capacity, effective March 10. Other governors have also begun easing precautions as coronavirus cases and deaths decline thanks to an ongoing vaccination blitz and social distancing measures.
“I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%,” Abbott said on Tuesday. “EVERYTHING.”
But public health experts have stressed the pandemic is far from over.
The Austin American-Statesman reported that Dr. John Hellerstedt, the commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, told local lawmakers he “did not have a personal conversation” with Abbott prior to the announcement, which public health officials and top figures in the federal government have roundly criticized.
In fact, three of the governor’s four coronavirus medical advisers said they hadn’t spoken with him. The fourth, Dr. John Zerwas, told the Statesman he had spoken to Abbott and believed “the state mandate is in the rearview mirror” and that it was “time for personal responsibility” to take over.
More than 42,000 Texans have died from the coronavirus, the third-most deaths in the country behind California and New York. Just over 13% of Texans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC, however, has said infections have plateaued rather than continued to decline in recent days, and the agency is worried virus mutations could be gaining ground as restrictions end and optimism about returning to some sense of normal grows.
“We stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, said Monday. She echoed those comments on Wednesday, saying it was “not the time to release all restrictions.”
President Joe Biden did not mince words when asked about Texas’ and other states’ decisions, calling the idea the public could forgo masks in the midst of the pandemic “Neanderthal thinking.”
“I think it’s a big mistake,” Biden told a reporter in the Oval Office on Wednesday. “I hope everyone’s realized by now that these masks make a difference. We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease.”
Biden said earlier this week the country was expected to have enough vaccine for the entire adult population in the U.S. by the end of May, months earlier than expected.
Abbott’s decision has also not been popular with some lawmakers in Texas. Houston City Controller Chris Brown said Abbott’s decision was “irresponsible” and that he believed the state should have waited at least two more months so more people could get vaccinated.
“We know with science that masks work, and that’s been one of our tools to combat this deadly virus,” Brown told Bloomberg on Wednesday. “We should have waited at least another 60 days to allow more people to get vaccinated.”
Some companies have already said they will keep mask requirements in states that plan to lift such mandates. The Wall Street Journal reported Target, Hyatt, CVS and Starbucks will not drop their requirements that customers wear masks any time soon and will continue to operate at capacity limits.
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