WASHINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday (March 2) lifted a state mask mandate and said he was authorising businesses restricted because of the coronavirus pandemic to open "100 per cent".
"For nearly half a year, most businesses have been open either 75 per cent or 50 per cent and during that time, too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities," Mr Abbott said.
"Too many small business owners have struggled to pay their bills," the Republican governor said in a speech to the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce.
"This must end. It is now time to open Texas 100 per cent," he said to cheers and applause from his audience.
"Every business that wants to be open should be open."
Mr Abbott said he was lifting the restrictions because of the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines, and better testing and treatments.
"Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus," he said.
Mr Abbott imposed a mask mandate in the second most populous US state eight months ago.
He said an executive order rescinding his previous Covid-19 orders and restrictions would take effect on Wednesday.
Mr Abbott's move lifting restrictions came despite a warning on Monday by Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from Covid-19," Ms Walensky said.
"I remain deeply concerned about a potential shift in the trajectory of the pandemic," she said.
"Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of Covid-19," the CDC director said.
"Continue wearing your well-fitted mask and taking the other public health prevention actions that we know work."
Mr Abbott's executive order comes as many US states and major cities seeing a sharp decline in coronavirus infections and hospitalisations begin to ease the unprecedented lockdowns put in place a year ago.
Local officials can still apply limits to businesses where hospitalizations remain high, according to the order, but were prohibited from mandating that they operate at less than 50 per cent capacity.
The governor said he was able to lift the restrictions because Texas, the third most-populous US state, had administered nearly 5.7 million vaccine shots to its 29 million residents.
The decision puts Texas in conflict with US President Joe Biden, a Democrat who has urged Americans to keep taking Covid-19 precautions, including wearing masks, until vaccinations have fully tamped down the virus.
In remarks at the White House on efforts to step up vaccine production, Mr Biden did not mention Texas. But the president appeared to be referring to Mr Abbott's executive order when he urged Americans to continue wearing face protection.
"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."
Referring to Mr Abbott's order on masks, White House Covid-19 adviser Andy Slavitt told CNN: "I hope the governor rethinks this. It's only a small piece of cloth that's needed. I don't think it affects the economy of the state."
As of Tuesday, 35 US states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, still mandate that residents wear face masks in public. Mississippi also lifted its face-covering order on Tuesday.
More than 51 million Americans, or 15 per cent of the total US population, have been given at least one vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said that effective immediately, bars, restaurants and other businesses can increase indoor capacity to 50% and remain open until 1 a.m.
"We have made incredible progress in recent weeks and months, and I thank our business community for their ongoing commitment to saving lives," Lightfoot said in a written statement.