After much hinting, Gov. Greg Abbott announced today that he’s removing all statewide Covid-19 mandates, including face mask orders, almost one year after Texas reported its first cases of Covid-19. 

“It is now time to open Texas 100 percent,” he announced Tuesday afternoon in Lubbock.

Effective next Wednesday, March 10, any business in Texas can reopen to 100 percent capacity, if they wish. That doesn’t mean businesses have to reopen, Abbott specified, but “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.”

The statewide face mask mandate will also end on March 10. But, Abbott said, removing state mandates does not mean ending personal responsibility. He encouraged people to continue social distancing practices as they see fit, energetically insisting that Texans know what they need to do.

“Now, Texans have mastered the daily habits to avoid getting Covid,” he said.

He did specify that if Covid-19 hospitalizations rise above 15 percent for seven straight days, then a county judge may implement some restrictions. But no one can be jailed for not following restrictions, and no one can be fined for failing to wear a mask. Plus, all entities must be allowed to operate at 50 percent.

Why now?

As for why reopening everything now, Abbott said it was because we’re in a much better state than we were last October, when the state was in the middle of a massive surge in cases. We’re also way better than we were a year ago, when Covid-19 cases first began to occur in Texas.

“Back then hardly any Texan knew what PPE was,” Abbott said. “Now we have an abundance of it.”

On March 19, when Abbott first declared a public health disaster, the state’s first in over a century, the state reported 26 new confirmed cases of Covid-19, according to previous Houstonia reporting. The city and the state were desperately trying to get ahold of personal protection equipment, like face coverings and hand sanitizer, and there was, of course, a run on toilet paper.

On March 31, when the governor issued a statewide “stay-home-work-safe” order, the state reported 392 new cases of Covid-19. Over the next month—what most people refer to as the “lockdown,” even though Texas was never technically on a lockdown—cases continued to climb and local governments struggled with the governor over Covid-19-related orders, such as those regarding face masks.

When the governor first began reopening Texas on May 1 last year with his Phase 1 plan, the state reported 29,229 total cases. On May 18, the first day of Phase 2, the state reported 48,693 total cases. By June 25, cases topped 125,000. At that point, Abbott paused re-openings as cases surged throughout the summer. Texas’s worst day was July 15, when the state reported 10,791 new confirmed cases, a one-day high.

By September, though, the Lone Star State looked as if it was finally coming down from its surge. On September 16, the state had 674,772 confirmed cases and was reporting around 4,000 new cases a day. At that point, the state’s hospitalization rate was the lowest it had been in three months (coincidentally, the governor said the same thing today). So, the governor announced that businesses could start expanding occupancies again, with retail stores, restaurants, offices, gyms, museums, libraries, and manufacturing having the ability to expand from 50 percent to 75 percent.

It should be noted that in both May and September, when the governor announced major re-openings, no business was allowed to open at 100 percent, as they are now.

By late October, Texas was headed toward another surge in cases. By early November, the country was experiencing another wave (reporting more than 100,000 new cases on November 4). West Texas communities like Lubbock and El Paso were also seeing major surges. On November 11, Texas hit 1 million total cases. A week later, on November 18, Abbott announced there would be no more shutdowns in Texas.

By December, vaccines had made their way to Texas, and while it seemed unlikely that most people would get a vaccine for months, there was finally some hope on the horizon.

Today Abbott praised the state’s vaccine distribution, citing it as one of the reasons we can reopen. More than 5.7 million vaccines have been administered, Abbott touted. As of March 1, 3,574,983 people in the state had received at least one dose, and 1,887,045 were fully vaccinated, according to DSHS data. However, using those numbers, less than 7 percent of Texans have been vaccinated.

But the governor said vaccine supply would be increasing rapidly, especially now that the state would be receiving Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses, which were approved for emergency use over the weekend, as well (Harris County received 12,000 J&J doses today).

Abbott also said the number of people who’ve recovered from Covid-19 is another reason for today’s announcement. He said there have been about 2.5 million lab-tested recoveries (2,429,453 estimated recovered cases, according to DSHS). But, Abbott continued, considering many cases go unreported (in Houston, about 40 percent of cases go untested) the number of real recoveries is probably closer to 10 million. That’s 10 million people who “have proven the ability to beat the disease,” Abbott said.

According to DSHS, 42,995 people in Texas have died from Covid-19. In Harris County, there have been 3,299 deaths as of March 1, 2021, according to local data. 

Public reactions

While there has been a mixed reaction on social media to the governor’s announcement, many local leaders have criticized the announcement.

“Especially with the arrival of new variants of the virus to Texas and our cities, with the associated potential for a future spike in cases, preserving the most effective of our existing safety measures is even more important,” wrote Harris Country Judge Lina Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner in a joint letter to Abbott this afternoon.

Both local leaders made separate statements as well.

“Every time we start moving in the right direction the Governor steps in and sets us back and makes all of our jobs harder,” Turner tweeted. “He minimizes the sacrifices of people and businesses. I just don’t get it.” He also posted an official statement on YouTube.

“At best, this is wishful thinking, that COVID is somehow less dangerous than it was yesterday,” tweeted Hidalgo. “At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”

"While Houston's #COVID19 positivity rate is trending down, the amount of variant in wastewater is increasing," tweeted the Houston Health Department. "Until at least 70% of people are vaccinated, masks are our best protection from this deadly virus. Continue to #MaskUp for your family and community."

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw retweeted Abbott’s announcement with the statement “Happy Independence Day Texas.”

During his speech earlier today the governor said, “Individual responsibility is a corollary to individual freedom.”

Local businesses have also commented on the news.

“We love y’all and our team very much,” said Goodnight Hospitality, which operates the restaurant Rosie Cannonball, the wine bar and shop Montrose Cheese and Wine, and the soon-to-open restaurant March, in a statement Tuesday. “While we are hopeful for the future and extremely grateful to still be operating and are elated to see some of our dear friends and family have the opportunity to be vaccinated, we feel strongly that it is not our time to loosen any protocols for everyone’s safety. That time will come when everyone has the equal ability to easily find a vaccine. Because of this, our staff will wear masks throughout their shifts, our patrons will wear masks unless seated at their table, we will perform daily temperature checks and maintain monthly Covid-19 testing for our entire team, and our indoor operations will remain at 50-percent capacity. We know it’s been a long year and we hold undying gratitude to all our supporters and supporters of independent restaurants.”

“Although there is no longer a statewide mask order, H-E-B believes it is important that masks be worn in public spaces until more Texans and our Partners have access to the Covid-19 vaccine,” said Lisa Helfman, public affairs director for H-E-B Houston. “As an essential service provider during the pandemic, H-E-B is focused on the health and safety of our Partners and customers. H-E-B will still require all our Partners and vendors to wear masks while at work, and we urge all customers to please wear a mask when in our stores.”

"In an effort to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and to protect our staff, guests, and animals, we will continue to require all persons 10 years and older to wear masks while on Zoo grounds," tweeted the Houston Zoo. "We will also continue timed ticketing entry & limiting capacity."

"It's very apropos that the Texas governor announces on Texas Independence Day that we're going to be independent again. I think that's pretty epic,” said Tim Love, owner of Woodshed Smokehouse, Love Shack, and Side Dough at Levy Park, via a press release. Love was one of the businessmen who met with President Donald Trump in May 2020 to discuss assistance for small businesses during the pandemic.

He continues: "Almost one year ago to the day, we wrote what we call our COVID playbook, which we submitted to the governor's office and our mayor's office in Fort Worth. It was more strict than any state or federal mandate, and we followed those protocols to a 't' for almost a year. We're excited that they worked; we never had any issues at our restaurants, we kept everyone safe, and now we're coming through to the other end of this better and stronger."

"We’re still going to continue all the same health and safety protocols that have been in place here at Riel,” says Ryan LaChaine, executive chef of Riel. “That means everything will continue to be sanitized after use and all staff will be wearing masks. We ask that our customers continue to wear masks when they enter the restaurant.”

He continues: "I understand that not everyone is going to agree with this. However, the majority of our employees have not had the opportunity to get vaccinated, and we believe that keeping these safety protocols in place is the best way to keep our staff and customers safe."

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