Five states -- Texas, Mississippi, Iowa, Montana and North Dakota -- have ended, or soon will end, statewide mask mandates, despite the looming threat of COVID-19 and highly transmissible variants.
They're joining 11 other states -- Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Tennessee -- that never required face coverings statewide.
Alabama will lift its mandate in about a month, Gov. Kay Ivey announced Thursday. She said that beginning on April 9, wearing masks will be "a matter of personal responsibility and not a government mandate."
Texas and Mississippi announced Tuesday they'd shortly be ending requirements for masks and allowing businesses to operate at full capacity, decisions President Joe Biden slammed as "Neanderthal thinking."
Ending requirements for face coverings defies Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that encourages everyone public to continue wearing masks in public and maintaining proper social distancing.
"Cases in the country are leveling off at rates just on the cusp of potential to resurge," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a Wednesday briefing on the reopenings. She added the COVID-19 variant that first emerged in the UK, known as B.1.1.7, "looms ready to hijack our successes to date."
She stressed it is "critically important" that "individuals wear a mask, socially distance and do the right thing to protect their own health."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that "Texas is OPEN 100%" and the mask mandate, in effect since July, would expire March 10. He cited lower COVID-19 hospitalizations and a virus positivity rate that has been declining for two months straight.
The Lone Star State has recorded more than 2.3 million cases of COVID-19 -- with nearly 5,000 new cases Wednesday -- and more than 43,500 fatalities since the start of the crisis, according to state data. The state is averaging 297 deaths a day, according to The Covid Tracking Project's seven-day average.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves announced the end of his state's mask mandate starting on March 3, citing plummeting hospitalization and case numbers and ramped up vaccine distribution.
Cases have fallen in the state since January and the percent positivity rate for the last month is 10.96%, according to Johns Hopkins University. Only 7.63% of the state's population has been vaccinated.
"Starting tomorrow, we are lifting all of our county mask mandates and businesses will be able to operate at full capacity without any state-imposed rules," Reeves said in a Facebook post. "Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed. It is time!"
Iowa adopted a mask mandate in November, but in February Gov. Kim Reynolds lifted it saying, "We know what we need to do and it doesn't require a government mandate to do it."
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte allowed the state's mask rule to expire in February but said local authorities could enforce their own mandates.
North Dakota issued a mask mandate in November 2020 that expired in January. Officials didn't renew it due to a drop in cases and hospitalizations, while allowing for local safety protocols to be enacted.