Greg Abbott at a Hurricane Laura briefing in August last year. Following Abbott’s decision, Texas will be the most populous state in the country that does not require residents to wear masks. Photograph: Jay Janner/AP
Greg Abbott at a Hurricane Laura briefing in August last year. Following Abbott’s decision, Texas will be the most populous state in the country that does not require residents to wear masks. Photograph: Jay Janner/AP

Abbott made the announcement during a Lubbock Chamber of Commerce event where he issued an executive order rescinding most of his earlier executive orders like the mask mandate.

Abbott said businesses of any type will be allowed to open 100% beginning March 10.

"Too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities. Too many small business owners have struggled to pay their bills. This must end. It is now time to open Texas 100%," he said.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also announced Tuesday the end to all county mask mandates and that businesses can reopen at 100% capacity. The new orders will go into effect Wednesday, Tate said.

"Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed. It is time!," Reeves tweeted Tuesday.

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, according to CNN Edition.

“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.”

Abbott's announcement comes as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to drop across the country. However, health experts say relaxing restrictions now could lead to another surge, especially with the variants spreading.

In the last year, Texans have "mastered the daily habits to avoid getting Covid," Abbott said. As of Monday, 6.57% of Texans have been fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Abbott said Tuesday 5.7 million vaccine shots have been administered in the state, there is a surplus of personal protective equipment (PPE) and "10 million Texans have recovered from Covid."

"Removing state mandates does not end personal responsibility and caring for your family members, friends and others in your community," Abbott said. "People and businesses don't need the state telling them how to operate."

In a statement Tuesday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she disagreed with the governor's decision.

"Taking away critical public health interventions" that are working won't make Texas communities safer or speed up the return to normalcy, Hidalgo said.

"Every time public health measures have been pulled back, we've seen a spike in hospitalizations," Hildago's statement read.

Hildago said the country is "inching closer to the finish line of this pandemic."

"Now is not the time to reverse the gains we've worked so hard to achieve," the judge's statement read. "At best, today's decision is wishful thinking. At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid."

Jason Brewer, spokesman for the retail lobbying group Retail Industry Leaders Association, said in a statement that "relaxing common-sense safety protocols like wearing masks is a mistake."

"Going backwards on safety measures will unfairly put retail employees back in the role of enforcing guidelines still recommended by the CDC and other public health advocates," Brewer's statement read. "It could also jeopardize the safety of pharmacies and grocers that are gearing up as vaccination centers."

Texas puts White House relations to the test

Governor Abbott's announcement was no surprise to Texans. After all, the state's pandemic response has been political from the start, BBC reported.

The state's Republican leadership favoured former President Donald Trump's relatively relaxed approach to imposing restrictions. But that created tension with local officials in the state's major cities, which all lean Democrat.

It was control of the disease vs control of the economy. Mask requirements vs maintaining personal liberties. And when the surges came, state politicians were more reactive than proactive.

A year later, not much has changed. The state's death toll and current case rate are still among the highest in the US. That's why critics say Governor Abbott's decision does not follow the science.

So the decision will be a test to the state - but also to Mr Abbott's relationship with President Biden, who has addressed the pandemic with more urgency than his predecessor.

States across the US have started to ease Covid-19 restrictions, causing concern among health officials (Photo: Reuters)
States across the US have started to ease Covid-19 restrictions, causing concern among health officials (Photo: Reuters)

People who don't wear masks won't be penalized

Abbott said he knows some officials will worry that opening the state 100% will lead to worsening of Covid in their communities. He says his executive order addresses that concern.

"If Covid hospitalizations in any of the 22 hospital regions in Texas rise above 15% of the hospital bed capacity in that region for seven straight days, then a county judge in that region may use Covid mitigation strategies in their county," Abbott said.

On a county level, though, a judge cannot put anyone in jail for not following Covid orders and no penalties can be imposed for people who do not wear masks, Abbott said.

"If restrictions are imposed at the county level, all entities must be allowed to operate at at least 50% capacity," he said.

The mayors of Mission, Houston and Dallas all said they would continue to either encourage mask wearing or require masks in their respective city buildings, despite Abbott's executive order.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Abbott's announcement "really undermines all of the sacrifices that have been made by medical professionals, doctors, nurses, EMS workers, firefighters, police officers, municipal workers, people in the community."

Austin Mayor Steve Adler told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Tuesday night that everyone in the city was "just dumbfounded" over Abbott's announcement.

"It's mind-boggling, given where we are," Adler said. He said that they have worked so hard to "get at the risk" of Covid-19 in the city and Travis County.

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.

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, according to The Guardian.

“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.”

*READ MORE: Double Mask Fact Check: When to wear and not to wear

What about other US states?

President Biden has urged Americans to remain vigilant against the threat of the virus (Photo: Reuters)
President Biden has urged Americans to remain vigilant against the threat of the virus (Photo: Reuters)

Individual states are in charge of public health policy in the US. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, most introduced restrictions on businesses and travel.

About 35 required face coverings to be worn in public places - either or outdoor - although enforcement of these mask mandates has been patchy, according to BBC.

With cases and deaths falling sharply in recent weeks, several states have begun easing the restrictions.

Shortly after Mr Abbott's announcement, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said he would do the same in an even shorter time frame.

"Starting tomorrow, we are lifting all of our county mask mandates and businesses will be able to operate at full capacity without any state-imposed rules," Mr Reeves said.

Health experts have warned that the pandemic was far from over and cases could pick up if curbs were lifted too soon.

President Biden - in contrast with his predecessor Mr Trump - has made fighting the virus a priority for his administration.

On Tuesday, Mr Biden said he was upbeat about reaching his goal of delivering 100 million Covid-19 vaccine doses in his first 100 days in office, but urged Americans to remain vigilant in wearing masks and observing social distancing.

"Today's announcements are a huge step in our effort to beat this pandemic," Biden said in a televised statement from the White House. "But I have to be honest with you. This fight is far from over."

**READ MORE: What is COVID-19 or Coronavirus?

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How has Covid affected the US?

The 28.7 million total confirmed US infections is nearly double that of second-highest India (11 million) and Brazil (10.5 million), according to Johns Hopkins University research.

But the US ranks ninth in terms of deaths per 100,000 population, behind countries such as the UK and Italy.

At least 90,000 more Americans are expected to have died with the virus by 1 June, an Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projection says. By late May, the virus will kill around 500 Americans per day - down from approximately 2,000 now.

Hospital admission rates have fallen sharply since January.

The growing number of new variants, which could spark further outbreaks, remains a concern.