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GOVERNOR LIFTS TEXAS CORONAVIRUS RESTRICTIONS

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    Governor Greg Abbott issued the following Executive Order last Tuesday:

    Executive Order (GA-34) lifting the mask mandate in Texas and increasing capacity of all businesses and facilities in the state to 100 percent. The Governor made the announcement at Montelongo’s Mexican Restaurant in Lubbock in an address to the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce.

    “With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus,” said Governor Abbott. “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent. Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared, but it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations, and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed. Today’s announcement does not abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year. Instead, it is a reminder that each person has a role to play in their own personal safety and the safety of others. With this executive order, we are ensuring that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny.”

    During his remarks, the Governor discussed the incredible advancements that Texas has made that allow the state to open fully and lift the mask mandate—noting the rapid increase of vaccines. Nearly 5.7 million vaccine shots have been administered to Texans, and the state is now administering almost one million shots each week. By next Wednesday, about 7 million shots will have been administered in Texas and over half of seniors in Texas will have received a vaccine shot. By the end of March, every senior who wants a vaccine should be able to get one. The vaccine supply continues to increase so rapidly that more and more Texans will soon be eligible to receive a vaccine.

    The Governor noted that Texas has a surplus of personal protective equipment and can perform over 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day. The state has invested in a variety of anti-body therapeutic drugs that have kept thousands of Texans out of hospitals. Texans have also adopted daily habits that reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure and infection. More than 2.5 million Texans who were lab confirmed for COVID-19 have recovered since the beginning of the pandemic, and experts note the total number of Texans who have recovered from COVID-19 is likely 4-5 times that amount. The number of active COVID-19 cases is the lowest since November—meaning more Texans are recovering from COVID-19 than contracting it.

    This executive order rescinds most of the Governor’s earlier executive orders related to COVID-19. Effective Wednesday, all businesses of any type may open to 100% capacity. Additionally, this order ends the statewide mask mandate in Texas. Businesses may still limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols at their own discretion.

    If COVID-19 hospitalizations in any of the 22 hospital regions in Texas get above 15% of the hospital bed capacity in that region for seven straight days, a County Judge in that region may use COVID-19 mitigation strategies. However, County Judges may not impose jail time for not following COVID-19 orders nor may any penalties be imposed for failing to wear a face mask. If restrictions are imposed at a County level, those restrictions may not include reducing capacity to less than 50% for any type of entity.

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

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

    “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 Governor Tate Reeves also announced Tuesday the end to all county mask mandates and that businesses can reopen at 100% capacity.  “Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed. It is time!,” Reeves tweeted last week.

    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 variant strains spreading worldwide.

    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, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo questioned the timing of this announcement.

    “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 group Retail Industry Leaders Association, RILA, 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.” 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 order.

    Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Abbott’s announcement “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 last 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. Adler said he and Travis County Judge Andy Brown sent a letter to the governor’s office Tuesday morning “begging him not to do it.” The city will continue its mask mandate and the chamber of commerce in Travis County issued a statement urging its member businesses to continue to require masks as well, Adler said.

    “This is self-help at this point,” Adler said.

    City and county officials urge residents in their areas to still follow recommendations from health experts and officials that call for wearing face masks in public.

    “We need to focus not on what the governor tells you the law allows, but what doctors and the facts and the science that we all know well at this point tell us is necessary to keep us safe and give us our best chance of reaching herd immunity as quickly as possible,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said.

    In addition to lifting the mask mandate this week, Abbott will allow businesses to operate at full capacity. 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 officials lambasted the latest order because it does not allow local leaders to enforce their own mask mandates. The latest order also removes a previous option available to local leaders: to compel businesses to require that customers wear face masks.

    The order also establishes that nothing “precludes businesses or other establishments from requiring employees or customers to follow additional hygiene measures, including the wearing of a face covering.” That brought little relief to local leaders.

    “I’m very disappointed, it’s an irresponsible action. We still have 464 people in the hospital and 199 in ICU as of yesterday,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. “We’re still not out of the woods. And I think it’s very premature to do this.”

    As of March 4, 43,878 people who tested positive for the virus have died. The average number of deaths reported over the past seven days shows how the situation has changed over time by de-emphasizing daily swings.

    Texans (and, more widely, Americans) of color have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic. More than half of the deaths due to COVID-19 have been Black or Hispanic people, and advocates have reported that these communities are behind others on their vaccination efforts. In Texas and across the country, front-line employees are more likely to be women as well as minorities than other workers, according to the Associated Press.

    Wolff was the first county judge to force businesses to mandate mask last year, after finding a loophole in Abbott’s previous order which didn’t allow local leaders to establish countywide mandates. Now he said that he won’t be able to do so anymore.

    “He’s plugged that hole. He allows businesses to do what they want to do,” said Judge Wolff, “Now law enforcement has no right to be called on it.”

    Wolff said that Abbott’s latest order leaves counties limited to encouraging people to wear masks and socially distance.

    “That’s about all we can do from what we interpreted,” Wolff said of the Executive Order.

    Officials from Dallas, Harris and Travis counties said that their legal teams are still studying the order to clarify these aspects and what they are allowed to do.

    In El Paso, a county that has seen more than 2,000 COVID-19 deaths, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said on Twitter that Abbott’s order on masks “would be equivalent to him stating that we don’t have to wear our seatbelts…but it would be a good idea if we did.”

    Prior to the press conference, Judge Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a letter to Abbott asking him to keep the mask requirement in place. Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown likewise wrote a similar letter to Governor Abbott.  “We believe it would be premature and harmful to do anything to lose widespread adoption of this preventive measure. Scientific studies have shown repeatedly that the widespread wearing of face masks slows down the virus,” one letter reads. “Especially with the arrival of new variants of the virus to Texas and our cities, with the associated spike in cases, preserving the most effective of our existing safety measures is even more important.”

    Health experts estimate 75% to 90% of Texans need to achieve immunity to COVID-19 to reach herd immunity. As of March 3, about 7.5% of Texas’ 29 million people have been fully vaccinated. One obstacle is vaccines are not approved for children under 16, who make up about 23% of the population.

    In San Antonio, Mayor Ron Nirenberg called opening businesses at 100% capacity and at the same time banning mask mandates a “huge mistake.”

    “COVID-19 is still widespread in our community and infecting too many of our vulnerable residents,” Niremberg said in a statement. “You don’t cut off your parachute just as you’ve slowed your descent. Please join me in continuing to wear a mask.”

    In a statement, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson called residents to “continue to mask up” and said that “now is not the time to let down our guard.”

    Governor Abbott’s order goes into effect today.

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