AUSTIN, Texas — Health officials, along with mayors and county judges in some of the state's largest cities, are blasting Gov. Greg Abbott for lifting coronavirus restrictions.
Texas will soon be the largest state to lift its COVID-19 mask mandate. During an event in Lubbock Tuesday, Abbott said he's ending the mask mandate and allowing businesses to operate at full capacity beginning March 10.
"Personal vigilance to follow the safe standards are still needed to contain COVID. It's just that now, state mandates are no longer needed," he said.
The governor pointed to a steady decline in cases and hospitalizations, and the availability of vaccines, as reasons for lifting the restrictions. But health experts continue to warn the outbreak is far from over. Abbott's order does allow businesses to continue to mandate masks and limit capacity but that brought little relief to local leaders and health officials.
"The problem that came out in the governor's speech is he's framing this as an individual liberty problem. That it's an individual risk that individuals can manage." said Dr. Ben Neuman, a coronavirus expert and the Global Health Research Complex Chief Virologist at Texas A&M University. "The thing is, you can't give COVID to yourself and you can't get it from yourself. It is a risk that is collective and it's a little more like secondhand smoke. It's something you need public cooperation in order to get protection and that's something that has been very difficult to get all along here. This change in public policy, I believe, actually makes it much more difficult. It puts social pressure on people to not mask and I think that is ultimately going to lead to more cases of COVID-19."
Local leaders in some of the the state's major cities preemptively tried to urge Abbott to keep the mask mandate in place. They wrote him a letter stressing the arrival of new, more contagious variants of the virus and recommendations from health officials. But their request was rejected.
"Could not disagree with the governor more. This is absolutely the wrong time to be taking our masks off and risking possibly a third surge if people were to do that and spring break is just around the corner," said Travis County Judge Andy Brown.
If COVID-19 hospitalizations in any of Texas' 22 hospital regions rise above 15% of the capacity in that region for seven straight days, a county judge "may use COVID mitigation strategies in their county," according to the governor. But Judge Brown says it's not enough.
"I think we need to keep following the medical experts, the scientists, and wear our masks when we're around anyone we don't live with. Thinking that 15% threshold is a bumper is misguided," he said.
Nearly 7% of Texans have been fully vaccinated. That's far short of the 75% to 85% recommended by health experts to effectively neutralize the virus. Health officials also say masks should still be worn even once you're vaccinated.
"The mask is your safety vest. Don't rely on the vaccine alone to help you," said Dr. Neuman. "When you got out on a motorcycle, you put on that helmet. Not because you expect to crash, but because if anything bad happens, you want it to be there to protect you. That's exactly what the vaccine is, nothing more."