As officials across the country report a downturn in Covid infections and a stepping up of the vaccination roll-out, there have been demands from some business leaders to lift the lockdown restrictions that have wrecked businesses.
On Tuesday, Republican Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, the nation’s second most populated state, announced he was lifting a mandate that required people to wear masks. He also said most businesses will be able to open at full capacity by next week.
“Too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities,” Mr Abbott said. “Too many small business owners have struggled to pay their bills. This must end. It is now time to open Texas 100 per cent.”
The decision was widely condemned by a number of health experts, who warned it was too soon to put away the masks, saying that the advances that had been made against the pandemic could be swiftly lost.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that she was “really worried” about the rush to reopen, even as the number of new infections appeared to have reached a plateau of 70,000 a day.
“Seventy thousand cases a day seems good compared to where we were just a few months ago,” she said. “Please hear me clearly - at this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained.”
On Wednesday, Austin mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat, claimed Mr Abbott had “created ambiguity where none should exist”.
“At the beginning of this pandemic, governor Abbott said he’d be guided by the science and the data, and yesterday he broke that promise,” said Mr Adler. “Masking works, and it continues to be necessary.”
Mr Adler said he hoped people would continue to wear masks, even if there was no longer a statewide mandate.
“We can still choose to wear masks,” he said, during a live-streamed press conference, according to KXAN News. “Businesses can still choose to require masking. Now is the moment for our community to pull together to help protect ourselves and one another.”
Laura Huffman, the president and CEO of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, agreed with Mr Adler and urged businesses to continue implementing masking.
Mr Abbott said that removing the mandate did not mean an “end to personal responsibility”, suggesting people could still wear a mask if they chose.
On the list of Covid deaths per capita, Texas is ranked around 24th. Yet, a number of cities, including Austin, did become become hotspots.
Also on Tuesday, Mississippi, which has performed considerably worse than Texas when it comes to deaths per capita, announced it was lifting its statewide mask mandate. The state’s governor, Tate Reeves, is also Republican.
Reuters said 35 US states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, still have mandates requiring residents to wear face masks in public.
Speaking earlier this week at the White House, Joe Biden, urged people not to stop doing so.
“Now is not the time to let up,” he said.
“I’ve asked the country to wear masks for my first 100 days in office. Now is not the time to let our guard down. People’s lives are at stake.”