(Headline USA) Texas is lifting its mask mandate, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday, making it the largest state to end an order intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The Republican governor has faced sharp criticism from his party over the mandate, which was imposed eight months ago, and other COVID-19 restrictions.
It was only ever lightly enforced, even during the worst outbreaks of the pandemic.
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.
He said the new rules would take effect March 10.
“Removing statewide mandates does not end personal responsibility,” said Abbott, speaking from a crowded dining room where many of those surrounding him were not wearing masks.
“It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed,” he said.
The decision comes as governors across the U.S. have been easing coronavirus restrictions.
Like the rest of the country, Texas has seen the number of cases and deaths plunge.
Hospitalizations are at the lowest levels since October, and the seven-day rolling average of positive tests has dropped to about 7,600 cases, down from more than 10,000 in mid-February.
“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’s 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 — without evidence — in a letter Monday.
“Elected by the people, your most fundamental obligation is their health and safety. Please do not abrogate your duty,” Raymond said.
Adapted from reporting from Associated Press.