AUSTIN, Texas — Texas is lifting its mask mandate, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday, making it the largest state to end an order intended to reduce the spread of the coronavirus that has killed more than 42,000 Texans.
The Republican governor has faced sharp criticism from his party over the mandate, which was imposed eight months ago, and other COVID-19 restrictions.
Texas will also do away with limits on the number of diners that businesses can serve indoors, said Abbott, who made the announcement at a restaurant in Lubbock.
“It’s time to reopen Texas 100%,” Abbott said. “So that any business that wants to open can open.”
Under a new executive order to take effect next Wednesday, Texas will allow any business to open at 100% capacity if they choose to, NewsNation affiliate KXAN reported.
Only California and New York have reported more COVID-19 deaths than Texas.
“The fact that things are headed in the right direction doesn’t mean we have succeeded in eradicating the risk,” said Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology and director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.
Abbott imposed the statewide mask mandate in July during a deadly summer surge. But enforcement was spotty at best, and some sheriffs refused to police the restrictions at all. And as the pandemic dragged on, Abbott ruled out a return to tough COVID-19 rules, arguing that lockdowns do not work.
Politically, the restrictions elevated tensions between Abbott and his own party, with the head of the Texas GOP at one point leading a protest outside the governor’s mansion. Meanwhile, mayors in Texas’ biggest cities argued that Abbott wasn’t doing enough.
Most of the country has lived under mask mandates during the pandemic, with at least 37 states requiring face coverings to some degree. But those orders are increasingly falling by the wayside: North Dakota, Montana and Iowa have also lifted mask orders in recent weeks.
Ahead of the repeal in Texas, Democratic lawmakers urged Abbott to reconsider.
“Texas will experience more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths,” state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a Democrat from the border city of Laredo, told Abbott in a letter Monday.
Laredo, whose population is predominately Latino, has endured some of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic, running out of beds in hospital intensive care units as recently as January. The international trade hub has been among Texas’ most aggressive cities in trying to blunt the spread of the virus, taking measures that have included curfews.
“Elected by the people, your most fundamental obligation is their health and safety. Please do not abrogate your duty,” Raymond said.