The Republican governor of Texas issued an executive order Tuesday lifting the populous state's mask mandate and other remaining coronavirus-related restrictions, a move public health experts and Democratic critics characterized as dangerously premature particularly given the state's low vaccination rate.
"Clearly this announcement is a desperate distraction from the governor's dereliction of duty during the massive power and water outage."
—Rep. Joaquin Castro
The governor's office said in a press release that Abbott's new executive order rolls back most of his earlier unilateral actions related to the coronavirus pandemic. "Effective next Wednesday, all businesses of any type may open to 100% capacity," the statement reads. "Additionally, this order ends the statewide mask mandate in Texas. Businesses may still limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols at their own discretion."
Pointing out that Texas has vaccinated less than 7% of its population, Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa called Abbott's order "extraordinarily dangerous" and warned, "This will kill Texans."
"Our country's infectious disease specialists have warned that we should not put our guard down even as we make progress towards vaccinations. Abbott doesn't care," Hinojosa continued. "Make no mistake: opening Texas prematurely will only lead to faster Covid spread, more sickness and overcrowding in our hospitals, and unnecessary deaths. There is no economic recovery without beating the coronavirus pandemic. This will set us back, not move us forward."
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) echoed that message, declaring in a statement Tuesday night that "Governor Abbott’s failure to listen to science and medical advice will cost Texans their lives."
"The easiest thing everyone can do to slow the spread of Covid is to wear a mask and keep a social distance," said Castro. "It's reckless and dangerous for Governor Abbott to intentionally undermine public safety because he thinks it's good politics. Clearly this announcement is a desperate distraction from the governor's dereliction of duty during the massive power and water outage."
Governor Abbott’s failure to listen to science and medical advice will cost Texans their lives.
This decision is reckless and dangerous—and a desperate distraction from the Governor’s dereliction of duty during the power outages.
He’s putting politics above the people of Texas. pic.twitter.com/dMQI2c0e9K
— Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrotx) March 2, 2021
While Abbott presented his order as an effort to help businesses that have struggled to stay afloat during the deadly pandemic—which has taken the lives of more than 44,000 Texans—some small business owners cautioned that the governor's move could make it more difficult for companies to operate safely.
"As a small business owner, it's putting us in the firing line where you have to make the best decision for you and your business and you're going to be fighting people who are literally celebrating in the streets," Danette Wicker, the owner of a boutique shop in Fort Worth, told The Texas Tribune. "Here in Fort Worth people are having temper tantrums, knocking stuff off counters. People have had to be physically removed from businesses around here."
Wicker said she intends to continue requiring customers to wear masks while other businesses—including the grocery chain H-E-B—indicated in response to Abbott's order that they will drop such mandates.
Noting that "Covid spread isn't neatly contained by state borders," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) warned Tuesday that Abbott's order could have far-reaching implications for the fight against the pandemic.
"This endangers the entire country and beyond," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. "Explosions in Covid cases can increase the likelihood of new Covid variants to develop or spread to new places."
93.2% of Texans aren’t fully vaccinated.
The state just endured one disaster worsened by selfishness + denial of basic science, and now conditions are being set for another.
Repealing the mask mandate now endangers so many people, especially essential workers & the vulnerable. https://t.co/3lntlh7zxH
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 2, 2021
The Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out Tuesday that just last week, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stressed that "it is not the time to relax restrictions."
"Masks and social distancing are among the best tools we have to combat Covid-19," the group said following Abbott's announcement. "This is incredibly dangerous."