Virus Outbreak Texas

Signs tells customers about safety measures against COVID-19 that are required inside a retail store Tuesday in Dallas. Texas is lifting a COVID-19 mask mandate that was imposed last summer but has only been lightly enforced.

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas is lifting its mask mandate, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday, making it the largest state to no longer require one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The announcement in Texas, where the virus has killed more than 43,000 people, rattled doctors and big city leaders who said they are now bracing for another deadly resurgence. One hospital executive in Houston said he told his staff they would need more personnel and ventilators.

Federal health officials this week urgently warned states to not let their guard down, warning that the pandemic is far from over.

Abbott, a Republican, has faced sustained criticism from his party in America’s biggest red state over the statewide mask mandate — which was imposed eight months ago — as well as business occupancy limits that Texas will also scuttle next week. The mask order was only ever lightly enforced, even during the worst outbreaks of the pandemic.

“Removing statewide mandates does not end personal responsibility,” said Abbott, speaking from the crowded dining room of a restaurant in Lubbock, surrounded by several people not wearing masks.

“It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed,” he said.

The repeals take effect March 10.

The full impact of Texas’ reversal was still coming into focus. Target, one of the nation’s biggest retailers, said it would continue requiring customers to wear masks in Texas. Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, said he had no immediate plans to change the limits on fans at the American Airlines Center, where the biggest crowd so far this season was about 3,000 spectators.

Restaurant owners began confronting whether they, too, would relax COVID-19 safeguards in their dining rooms that were already allowed to be almost fully open. School administrators scrambled to figure out the ramifications for the state’s 5 million public school students. Local officials will have some ability to impose new rules if cases spike, Abbott said, but those powers will be limited.

“While we’ve made significant progress, I’d hate to have that go away,” said Tinku Saini, the CEO of Tarka Indian Kitchen, which has locations across Texas. He said he would now allow customers to go maskless but still require face coverings for staff.

At Bob’s Steak & Chop House in Dallas, founder Bob Sambol welcomed the ability to make decisions for his own restaurant again, even though he has not decided what approach he’ll take. “I have a week, thank God,” Sambol said.

Abbott joins a growing number of governors across the U.S. who are 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.

Texas is fully reopening just ahead of the spring break holiday, which health experts worry could lead to more spread. Abbott’s rollbacks come just as the U.S. is picking up the pace of vaccinating people — with victory over the virus in sight. In Texas, 7.1% of its nearly 30 million residents have been fully vaccinated, according to state data reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“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.

Dr. Joseph Varon, chief medical officer at Houston’s United Memorial Medical Center, said he called the hospital’s top leaders immediately after Abbott’s announcement and said they will need more staff and ventilators.

“I am just concerned that I am going to have a tsunami of new cases,” Varon said. “I truly hope I am wrong. But unfortunately history seems to repeat itself.”