“It is now time to open up Texas 100 percent. Every employee who wants to work should have that opportunity. Every business that wants to be open, should be open,” said Abbott.
Abbott said that his executive order will allow county judges to impose other restrictions if COVID-19 hospitalizations rise above 15 percent in the state trauma service area that covers their county — though not with a penalty of jail time or fines with any mask mandates.
COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on a sharp downward trend, with the most populous regions of the state falling below the 15 percent threshold during the recent statewide freeze.
Currently only two trauma service areas are above that mark: the regions covering El Paso and Laredo.
The governor’s last executive order related to the pandemic was issued in October and permitted some businesses to reopen at 75 and 50 percent capacity, as long as the same hospitalization metric was met.
Abbott issued the statewide mask mandate in July, after he previously took the position that “no jurisdiction can impose a civil or criminal penalty for failure to wear a face covering.”
The governor has now returned to that position, as his new executive order will prohibit any jurisdictions from fining individuals who do not wear masks or businesses that do not require them.
However, businesses may still require employees and customers to wear face coverings and request law enforcement to remove violators for trespassing.
“Removing statewide mandates does not end personal responsibility or the importance of caring for your family members,” said Abbott. “Personal vigilance to follow the safe standards is still needed to contain [COVID-19]. It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed.”
Abbott’s action to remove his previous regulations comes alongside criticism from many Democrats.
In letters released right before Abbott’s press conference, local officials in Travis and Harris counties urged the governor to delay ending his mask mandate.
After the press conference, the Texas House Democratic Caucus criticized the governor’s measure as “premature” and a diversion from the recent energy crisis.
“Masks work to slow the spread of COVID-19, plain and simple,” said Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie), the chair of the caucus. “Unfortunately, Governor Abbott is desperate to distract from his recent failures during the winter storm and is trying to change the subject.”
Gilberto Hinojosa, the chair of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement that Abbott’s new executive order “will kill Texans” and called him “the worst Governor in modern Texas history.”
In contrast, House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) applauded the governor for the measures taken to reopen the state.
“The unparalleled efforts of government and the pharmaceutical industry to defeat the novel coronavirus prove what we’ve always known: vaccines work. With greater access to vaccinations, better treatment options, and decreasing hospitalization rates, the Texas approach empowers citizens to exercise personal responsibility about their health in the fight against COVID-19,” said Phelan in a press release.
According to the New York Times, Texas follows 12 other states that currently do not have mask mandates.
The full executive order can be read below.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated throughout.
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.