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Some of Texas’ most populous cities and counties are beginning to ease months-long pandemic-era restrictions on gatherings and lift mask mandates on businesses as COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations plummet to the lowest numbers the state has seen in a year.
On Tuesday, officials in Travis and Harris counties — both early and adamant adopters of stay-at-home orders, mask mandates and other limits that covered nearly 6 million residents between the two counties — dropped their risk-based community safety guidelines to reflect lower threat levels, rolling back some health policies and guidelines in an effort to allow vaccinated residents more freedom to return to their pre-pandemic lives.
“If you are vaccinated, go for it,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Tuesday.
The decisions come days before cities, counties and other government entities are required to drop all mask mandates, under an executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday.
Abbott’s order, which takes effect on Friday, also says that after June 4, public schools will no longer be able to mandate masks on their campuses. The order exempts state-supported living centers, government-owned or -operated hospitals, Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities, Texas Juvenile Justice Department facilities, and county and municipal jails.
Abbott touted declining hospitalizations and deaths and more availability of vaccines to Texans as his reasons for the new order.
Local officials used their announcements as an opportunity to encourage more people to get vaccinated, saying that it’s the quickest way back to normalcy after a year of sacrifice.
“Join the party,” Hidalgo said. “Get vaccinated.”
For Harris County, dropping the threat level a notch for the first time since June means the county recognizes that vaccinated people are safe to drop their masks in groups — and therefore the county is no longer urging them to avoid non-essential activity, although unvaccinated people are still strongly urged to follow the guidelines still in place. Buildings owned by the county will also be opened to 50% capacity after being limited for months, and libraries are reopening on a limited basis.
The moves by Harris County were triggered by the fact that vaccines are readily available, nearly 40% of eligible county residents have gotten vaccinated, and hospitalizations and deaths are dropping, Hidalgo said.
The counties’ actions come days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it was safe for vaccinated people to resume much of their normal lives without masks, and after the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was approved for adolescents ages 12-15. The agency made clear that local and statewide rules still apply and were not being overruled.
Several national retail chains, including Target, Trader Joe’s and Walmart, immediately announced that they would be dropping mask requirements for customers in areas that allowed it.
With Texas’ rolling 7-day average of COVID-19 deaths hovering around 45, where it has remained for weeks, the state is just 100 reported deaths away from hitting 50,000 lives lost to COVID-19 since the pandemic reached Texas in March 2020. Since death certificates can be reported weeks late, the state has likely already hit that grim benchmark.
But the rate of deaths has steadily declined in the last few months. In some of the state’s largest counties, deaths over the weekend numbered in the single digits.
On Sunday, the state reported zero deaths for the first time since the pandemic began, though reporting lags significantly over the weekend and that number went back up to 23 on Monday. Earlier this year, the daily death counts in Texas were averaging well over 300.
And COVID-19 cases also have been dropping. The average number of confirmed new cases reported over the past seven days was at 1,398 on Monday. At its peak in January, that number was nearly 20,000.
Some 9.4 million Texans are fully vaccinated, just under one-third of the state’s population. About 50% of eligible Texans ages 12 and up have been vaccinated with at least one dose, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
“The vaccines work and have made a huge difference in the COVID-19 situation in Texas,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for DSHS. “All the metrics are headed in the right direction. To keep that going, we encourage everyone eligible to get vaccinated as soon as possible to protect themselves, protect people who can’t be vaccinated yet and decrease the chances a dangerous new variant will emerge here.”
In Austin, the county’s risk-based threat guidlines dropped to Stage 2 on Tuesday after the state reported no new deaths in the county over the weekend and hospitalizations declined.
Officials there on Tuesday also made it optional for businesses to require masks, and loosened restrictions on large outside gatherings.
“It’s just a reminder of just how effective the vaccine has been, and we all should be celebrating that, as well as how well we’ve done as a community,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Tuesday.
Travis and Bexar counties were among those that initially refused to roll back their restrictions in March when Abbott dropped the state mask mandate. Bexar eventually followed the order but Travis successfully fought in court to keep its county restrictions.
While some places in more rural and suburban areas have had their mask ordinances gone for months, the holdouts in metropolitan areas are still being cautious. It was unclear on Tuesday how some urban counties with mask orders still in place for public buildings planned to react to Abbott’s order.
San Antonio dropped mask directives for visitors in public facilities starting on Monday in response to the new CDC guidelines. Bexar County ended its mandates on Tuesday after Abbott’s new order.
“Although our numbers are trending downwards, the virus is still out there,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said in a statement. “We will abide by Governor Abbott’s executive order and not mandate masks in county facilities. However, it is up to the individual, county staff and visitors alike, to continue to wear masks if they feel more comfortable doing so and to use hand sanitizer.”
Tarrant County dropped its mask ordinance when Abbott made his March announcement, and voted Tuesday to suspend its mask policy in county buildings as well after the Abbott order. Harris County officials said Tuesday afternoon they were reviewing the governor’s order.
Hidalgo said that policy changes implemented by Harris County on Tuesday signal a new era for those who are vaccinated, and should serve as a motivator to those who are still hesitant to get a vaccine.
“It’s a great day,” she said. “But it’s very much not a ‘mission accomplished’ moment. … We still need to be cautious. But particularly among the vaccinated population, we can very much let our guard down.”
Mandi Cai contributed to this report.