UPDATED to reflect County Judge Clay Jenkins’ remarks, and reaction from Texas Medical Association COVID-19 Task Force member Dr. John Carlo, the DFW Hospital Council, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, the Texas Education Agency, Highland Park ISD, and Dallas ISD.
He’d been hinting at it for a week, but Tuesday afternoon in Lubbock, Gov. Greg Abbott declared victory on COVID-19.
“Too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities. Too many small business owners have struggled to pay their bills. This must end,” Abbott said during an event at Montelongo’s Mexican Restaurant in Lubbock. “It is now time to open Texas 100%.
“Also, I am ending the statewide mask mandate.”
Abbott said that all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100%, effective next Wednesday.
“Texans have mastered the habits to keep from getting COVID,” he said. “Covid has not suddenly disappeared, but state mandates are no longer needed.”
Abbott said that Texans should still continue to use safe practices in regards to avoiding community spread.
“Today’s announcement does not abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year,” he said. “Instead, it is a reminder that each person has a role to play in their own personal safety and the safety of others. With this executive order, we are ensuring that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny.”
Abbott said that almost 6 million vaccines have been administered, and the state is doling out around a million each week. He estimated that by the end of March, every senior citizen that wanted a vaccine will have had or will get one.
He also pointed to a surplus in personal protective equipment, and the fact that the state can now perform more than 100,000 COVID-19 tests per day. He also said that the state has invested in a variety of drug therapies to keep those sickened by the virus out of hospitals.
“If COVID-19 hospitalizations in any of the 22 hospital regions in Texas get above 15% of the hospital bed capacity in that region for seven straight days, a County Judge in that region may use COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” a statement from the governor’s office indicated. The same statement also said that jail time cannot be imposed for not following county orders, nor can penalties be applied for not wearing a face mask.
“If restrictions are imposed at a County level, those restrictions may not include reducing capacity to less than 50% for any type of entity,” the statement added.
In Dallas County, the recent winter storm slowed cases reporting for a time, but numbers seem to have settled in around 500-700 on average. Deaths – a lagging indicator – still remain somewhat high, but both numbers seem to be slowly trending downward.
Hospitalizations and ER visits also seem to be slowing, currently hovering somewhere near 12% in the region served by the North Central Texas Trauma Advisory Council.
Some questioned the wisdom in a statewide opening, citing areas that – while declining – are still far from reaching herd immunity.
Last week, the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation said it estimates that Dallas County will potentially reach herd immunity in late-June, based on total case recoveries and vaccinations. As of last week, the county was on track to have 80% of the county’s residents at levels of herd immunity by early summer.
Earlier in the day, Dallas County Health and Human Services director Dr. Philip Huang told Dallas County Commissioners that any movement to open the state at full capacity would be jumping the gun.
“We think it’s premature,” he said. “It’s still too early. We’d all love to get back to normal … it’s not the time to relax.”
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins reacted nearly immediately, pointing to the fact that Abbott’s announcement fell on a day where the county’s death toll rose above 3,000.
Statewide, nearly 22 million people would need to be vaccinated – almost 100% of the adults in the state. Children make up 23% of the population, and the vaccine is only currently approved for those 16 and older.
Dr. John Carlo, a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 Task Force, stopped short of commenting on Abbott’s latest order, telling the Texas Tribune that he hadn’t read it yet.
But that didn’t mean he wasn’t concerned. He told the Tribune that newer variants of the virus – especially the U.K. variant – could reverse the trends Abbott touted.
“We’re facing unacceptably high rates, and we still hear every day about more and more people becoming sick. And it may be less than before, but it’s still too many,” Carlo said. “Even if businesses open up and even if we loosen restrictions, that does not mean we should stop what we’re doing because we’re not there yet.”
In a statement, DFW Hospital Council CEO Stephen Love called the lifting of the mask mandate in particular “very unfortunate.”
“The COVID-19 virus with variants is still here and we have not achieved herd immunity,” he said. “This decision will cause the community spread to increase, forcing our exhausted healthcare heroes to diagnose, treat and save the lives of newly infected patients.
“Masks help protect your fellow Texans by tamping down the community spread of the virus,” he said. “Wearing masks can help the economy recover by slowing the spread of the infection in business places like restaurants and bars. Through our efforts to wear masks, physical distance and wash hands we have decreased the infection rate, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in North Texas over the past 5-6 weeks. Let’s not reverse that trend because the COVID-19 virus with variants are still here and we have not achieved herd immunity.”
The council’s statement continued by saying that while “we respect Governor Abbott … we strongly disagree with removing the mandatory mask requirements.”
The statement also called for Abbott to reverse his decision regarding masks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people who are fully vaccinated still take the same precautions – avoid crowds, maintain six feet distance between people, and wear masks.
The agency also cautions that just because someone has been vaccinated, doesn’t mean that can’t still spread the virus.
“If you are vaccinated against COVID-19, you may still be exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19,” the CDC said. “After exposure, people can be infected with or ‘carry’ the virus that causes COVID-19 but not feel sick or have any symptoms. Experts call this ‘asymptomatic infection.'”
Jenkins told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he anticipated working well into the night with various entities to determine what the next best course was, and carefully parsing the governor’s orders.
He also said that he was in a commissioner’s court meeting when the governor made his announcement, and had not been briefed at all by anyone in the governor’s office.
“This governor — unlike the previous governor — does not communicate with the county judges or mayors,” he said.
“The governor’s focused on what is legal,” he said. “I’m focused on what the doctors, the facts, and the science say will keep you safe.”
You can see Jenkins full press conference here:
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson and U.S. Rep. Colin Allred also weighed in.
“Texas has made progress in the fight against COVID, due in large part to statewide efforts that have limited the spread of this virus, helping to keep Texans safe and healthy,” he said. “With our state just months away from widespread access to the vaccine, the Governor’s move today jeopardizes the progress we have made and unnecessarily puts lives at risk.
“Just yesterday, the CDC noted we are facing more contagious variants and urged state leaders not to do this exact thing, which begs the question: whose medical advice is the Governor relying on?”
“The people of Dallas should continue to mask up and take precautions to slow COVID-19’s spread and mutations,” Johnson said. “We are getting closer to achieving herd immunity, and now is not the time to let down our guard. Vaccines, masks, and social distancing are the best tools we have for fighting this virus, which has claimed far too many lives in the last year.”
Schools will also have to begin factoring in whether to continue to require masking.
Highland Park ISD said in an email to families that they will continue to follow the safety protocols they have in place at least until spring break.
“We recognize that there will be many diverse opinions regarding this executive order, both from staff members and parents, and we do not want to rush any decisions without carefully considering all of the possible ramifications,” the newsletter read. “As has been said since the beginning of planning for the 2020-21 school year, the health and safety of HPISD students, staff, families and our community is our top priority.”
The district is awaiting TEA guidance and their reopening committee will meet after the guidance is issued to discuss any potential changes to the safety protocols.
“We will follow CDC guidelines as these discussions continue internally,” Dallas ISD said in a statement to NBC5. “As of now, we do not anticipate changes before the end of the school year. However, as administration continues discussing we will keep everyone informed of what those developments may be.”
The TEA said that “updated health guidance from TEA will be coming this week.”
The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, or TAPPS, said it based its recommendations on state orders, and would be lifting previous restrictions on crowd size and other constraints, effective March 10.
The association did say that it would leave many of the protocols up to individual schools.
“TAPPS supports the leadership of each school as they establish the protocols for their stakeholders in moving forward,” a statement said. “However, schools should not impose their restrictions on their opponents without prior mutual consent.”
The association also continued to recommend social distancing “where possible” and said “masks should be worn by those who feel at risk for contracting the virus.”
“TAPPS effectively withdraws capacity limits for school facilities, allowing each school to determine the capacity limits which best serve their communities,” the statement continued. “However, please review the requirements in place from local governmental agencies which may impact capacity or other rulings.”
We’ll have an update on how schools will address the governor’s order in the next few days.
Deputy Editor Rachel Snyder contributed to this story.