Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Tuesday to great fanfare that he would be ending several regulations that were originally put in place to stem the spread of coronavirus — a move that caused great consternation among health officials in the state who see it as being premature.
Abbott made the announcement while speaking at a restaurant in Lubbock, Texas, without wearing a mask.
“It is now time to open Texas 100 percent,” Abbott said to applause.
The Texas governor emphasized his announcement in a Twitter post shortly afterward. “I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%. EVERYTHING. I also ended the statewide mask mandate,” Abbott wrote.
Abbott’s order to ease restrictions is set to officially happen next week. Businesses will be allowed to continue enforcing their own rules on social distancing and masking in order to protect their employees if they want, but they will no longer be mandated to do so by the state.
Many are worried that the changes announced by Abbott are coming too quickly, as only around 7 percent of the state’s residents are currently vaccinated against coronavirus.
“I think this is a slap in the face of working people, especially frontline workers, who have been risking their lives,” said Emily Timm, co-executive director of Workers Defense Action Fund.
Indeed, the move comes as Texas is seeing a slight uptick in COVID-19 numbers and deaths. While the seven-day average of new cases being reported daily across the United States is down slightly over the past couple of weeks, in Texas, that average is moving in the opposite direction.
On February 19, the seven-day average was at 4,571 new cases per day in the state. As of Tuesday, cases are now up to 7,240 per day, a 58 percent increase.
The seven-day average of deaths has seen a similar trend, nearly doubling in the daily rate from mid-February to now.
Many lashed out at Abbott following his announcement, decrying the move as the wrong direction to take at this time. The editorial board for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for example, issued a scathing editorial against easing coronavirus restrictions.
“Gov. Greg Abbott must not have looked at the recent numbers of coronavirus deaths in Texas,” the board wrote. “Or worse, he did and decided that the 59 deaths reported Monday is good enough.”
And while Abbott said Texans still have a responsibility to be safe on their own, that wasn’t enough, the board went on to say.
“Plenty will hear only that the governor says we’re in the clear and ditch their facial coverings. Sending that message, even wrapped in a careful warning about the need to follow guidelines, is irresponsible,” the board said.
Health experts throughout Texas are similarly worried about Abbott’s new orders. James McDeavitt, the senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, said that people should still follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rather than assuming things are safe enough to venture out without masks on.
“I think it’s a little bit early, in my opinion, to be removing the masking requirement,” McDeavitt said, per reporting from The Texas Tribune. “I would have preferred to see our numbers lower, and I would have preferred to see more people vaccinated before we took that leap.”
Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Mark Escott, speaking at a meeting prior to Abbott’s announcement, agreed that now wasn’t the time to end the statewide mask mandate.
“We’re not anywhere near close to herd immunity. And the danger that we face by releasing [or] reducing those restrictions — particularly the mask mandate, which really has been the most effective public policy decision the governor has ever made — surely has the potential to initiate a surge at the moment when we have the potential to drive the [COVID-19] numbers into the ground,” Escott said.