Swift backlash after Texas governor drops COVID restrictions

Health experts and critics called the decision "premature" and "reckless."

March 3, 2021, 3:37 PM

Gov. Greg Abbott's announcement that Texas would end a statewide mask mandate and allow businesses to reopen at full capacity has been met with harsh criticism.

"Absolutely reckless," California Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote on Twitter shortly after the press conference Tuesday in which Abbott announced that it was "time to open Texas 100%."

Abbott pointed to small business owners hurt by the pandemic.

"Too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities," he said. "Too many small business owners have struggled to pay their bills. This must end."

Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Democratic party in Texas, issued a statement pushing back on Abbott's decision.

"What Abbott calls pro-business is anti-people," Hinojosa said. "Make no mistake: Opening Texas prematurely will only lead to faster COVID spread, more sickness and overcrowding in our hospitals, and unnecessary deaths. There is no economic recovery without beating the coronavirus pandemic. This will set us back, not move us forward."

Research has shown that widespread mask wearing is good for the economy. According to an analysis of U.S. data that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted, increasing universal masking by 15% "could prevent the need for lockdowns and reduce associated losses of up to $1 trillion," roughly 5% of U.S. gross domestic product.

PHOTO: Texas Governor Greg Abbott delivers an announcement in Montelongo's Mexican Restaurant, March 2, 2021, in Lubbock, Texas.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott delivers an announcement in Montelongo's Mexican Restaurant, March 2, 2021, in Lubbock, Texas.
Justin Rex/AP

Health experts similarly questioned the governor's decision to open the state and lift the mask mandate, which had been in place since July. The new rules are effective March 10.

"This is definitely not the time to being doing this," Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told MSNBC.

While cases in Texas have declined from their peak, variants of the virus, like B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, pose a risk to that downward trend, according to Hotez.

"We are all anticipating another major wave," he said. Texas is also behind on vaccinations following a winter storm that knocked out its power grid and snarled vaccine distribution.

"Let's get a much higher percentage of the population of Texas vaccinated," Hotez added. "To do it now, I think, is premature."

Other health experts urged Texas to stay the course and keep wearing masks, regardless of whether it's required.

"Even if it is not mandated, as a health care professional I urge all Texans to wear our masks until enough of our community is vaccinated that we approach herd immunity," Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, said in a statement. "Besides being vaccinated, wearing a mask is the most effective way to keep infections down and begin to return to normal. We strongly encourage you to make the personal decision to keep wearing your mask."

Dr. Anthony Fauci had previously cautioned states against reopening too quickly. At a White House briefing on Friday, Fauci warned against easing restrictions until the U.S. baseline average of new infections is lower.

"We have to carefully look at what happens over the next week or so with those numbers" before relaxing certain restrictions, Fauci said. "Watch it closely, and be prepared to react according to what actually happens."

White House senior COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt told CNN Tuesday night he hopes Abbott will rethink lifting restrictions, especially the mask mandate, though he stopped short of suggesting President Joe Biden should call the governor to ask him to change course.

"We think it's a mistake to lift these mandate too early. Masks are saving a lot of lives," he said. "The president has been clear about the fact that in the first 100 days of this administration, we could save 50,000 lives if we stick to this. I'm hoping that the businesses, and the community and people in Texas, the mayors, the county, will rethink this. I hope the governor rethinks this. It's only a small piece of cloth that's needed."

ABC News' Mark Osborne contributed to this report.

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