Texas, Mississippi to lift mask mandates, let all businesses reopen at full capacity

The announcements from the Republican governors come at a time when coronavirus cases and deaths have plateaued in the U.S., after hitting record numbers in January, and on the heels of good news for vaccination supply and distribution.

“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,” Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi wrote on Twitter. “Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed. It is time!”

Over the weekend a third vaccine, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, joined the country’s stable of vaccines authorized for emergency use, as vaccination rates are expected to well exceed President Joe Biden’s goal of 100 million shots in the first 100 days of his administration. Several states across the country have taken these signs as justification to accelerate their reopening plans.

Other states, including Montana and Iowa, have also lifted their mask mandates. In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker announced on Monday that restaurants in the state would no longer have to adhere to capacity limits, although other restrictions, such as its mask mandate, are still in place.

However, health officials have warned against states taking too much action to loosen their restrictions or eliminate them altogether, as coronavirus variants continue to spread globally.

Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Monday that she was “deeply concerned” that the recent decline in cases had seemed to stall as daily cases are still around the 70,000 mark.

“70,000 cases a day seemed good compared to where we were just a few months ago,” she said at a news briefing. “But we cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths.”

“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” she continued. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of Covid-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.”

Certain states continue to do worse than others. A Feb. 26 internal briefing document from the Federal Emergency Management Agency showed that four states, including Texas and Mississippi, were in the “red zone,” defined as having a positivity rate over 10 percent. The other two states were Oklahoma and New Hampshire, according to the briefing, which cited CDC data and was obtained and reviewed by POLITICO.

On Tuesday, Biden announced that there would be enough vaccine supply for all U.S. adults by May, shortening the timetable from a previous July target date. However, he reiterated his plea for Americans to wear masks despite the country’s progress in battling back the pandemic.

“I’ve asked the country to wear masks for my first 100 days in office,” he said in a speech to address the pandemic. “Now is not the time to let our guard down. People’s lives are at stake.”

Later Tuesday evening, Vice President Kamala Harris didn‘t mince her words while virtually addressing the House Democratic caucus: “Real leaders agree. People still need to mask up and stay distanced.“

A senior administration health official told POLITICO that the White House believed the Texas and Mississippi announcements — posted on Twitter within 30 minutes of each other — were a “coordinated effort” by Republican governors, and that it expected to see similar announcements in the coming days.

Clay Jenkins, the Democratic judge of Dallas County, said in a Zoom news conference after Abbott’s announcement that the governor did not consult with local officials before the announcement, adding that he believed Abbott was bowing to political pressure on the right to lift the orders before it made sense for the state.

“It doesn’t take much of a shift in [mask] compliance to set us back months and months, to set us back in herd immunity,” he said.

However, Dave Carney, Abbott’s political consultant, told POLITICO that the Texas governor had intended to issue the executive order a few weeks ago, but that it was delayed by the deadly winter storm that plunged the state into freezing temperatures and caused widespread power failures.

“This has nothing to do with politics and had to do with what facts on the ground are,” Carney said. “The restrictions were put in place to deal with availability of ICU units. That is not an issue anymore.”

Abbott, who has served as governor of the nation’s second-largest state for the past six years, has long harbored national ambitions. But mask mandates and other coronavirus restrictions have become less popular among Republican base voters as cases have plummeted, and Abbott could end up competing with smaller-state governors who have championed a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic.

This past weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., the crowd of activists cheered Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota — two governors staking out possible 2024 presidential lanes — for the more limited restrictions they have implemented over the past year.

Carney, however, said that Abbott was not interested in running for president the next cycle, adding that the governor was “focused on what is going on in Texas right now.”

“He has done nothing secretly or publicly to get anything prepared for 2024. This is media myth,” Carney said. If the governor were interested, he added, Abbott would have attended the conservative confab.

DeSantis, whose state hosted the conference, described Florida as “an oasis of freedom” compared to other states during the pandemic.

But while Abbott has taken a backseat to those governors in Fox News Channel appearances, he has broader political experience. Outside of former President Donald Trump, he’s the Republican Party’s strongest fundraiser: He had $38 million in cash on hand for his bid for a third term next year, as of the end of 2020.

A former state attorney general for 12 years before ascending to the governorship, Abbott has been a statewide elected official in populous Texas since 2002 — compared with DeSantis and Noem, who had brief, less remarkable careers in Congress before winning elections for governor in 2018.

Steven Shepard and Erin Banco contributed to this report.