US President Joe Biden has denounced the decision by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to wind down virus restrictions for nearly 30 million people in the state, calling it "Neanderthal thinking".
"We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we're able to get vaccines in people's arms," the President said. "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything's fine - take off your mask and forget it."
The impact of Abbott repealing many of the state's Covid-19 restrictions began taking shape today as businesses shed rules and city leaders plotted new safeguards. But what daily life in Texas will soon look like remains unsettled following one of the country's most dramatic rollbacks, in particular the requirement to wear masks, which health experts say is among the most effective ways to curb the spread of the virus.
Covid-19 has killed more than 43,000 people in Texas, and rattled doctors and big city leaders say they are now bracing for another deadly resurgence. One hospital executive in Houston said he told his staff they would need more personnel and ventilators. Federal health officials this week urgently warned states to not let their guard down, warning that the pandemic is far from over.
Mississippi has done likewise, with Governor Tate Reeves saying that the state will remove most mask mandates that were imposed to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Republican will also lift most other restrictions, including limits on seating in restaurants.
"The Governor's office is getting out of the business of telling people what they can and cannot do," Reeves said during a news conference yesterday.
Abbott said "personal vigilance" among Texans remained essential but that mandates were no longer needed, emphasising the increasing availability of vaccines. Texas health officials today announced that teachers and child care workers were now eligible to be vaccinated.
Immediately after Abbott made his announcement yesterday, the tiny Rogers school district said its 850 students would no longer need to wear masks or undergo temperature checks. But by this morning, Superintendent Joe Craig backpedalled, saying he needed to explain the ramifications to parents.
Under the district's current protocols, if everyone is wearing a mask, a positive test doesn't trigger an automatic quarantine of everyone in the same classroom. "If we go to a no mask thing, that part of it changes," Craig said. Most parents would probably not want masks, he said, "but they're missing a piece of information they're not considering."
Outside a spin workout studio in Dallas, manager Nicky Cecala said he was inundated with text messages from people who knew "all the struggle and perseverance we've had to endure" to keep the business running over the last year.
He said whether his studio changes protocols will partially depend on what customers want. But he appreciated that the choice was his.
"I don't think the government has a place to tell individuals what to do," he said. "I think they can suggest it, but it becomes kinda tyrannical to force people to do something against their will."