Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said on Tuesday that he was ending his statewide mask mandate, effective March 10, and that all businesses in the state could then operate with no capacity limits.
“I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%” he tweeted on Tuesday afternoon. “EVERYTHING.”
Mr. Abbott took the action after federal health officials warned governors not to ease restrictions yet because progress across the country in reducing coronavirus cases appears to have stalled in the last week.
“To be clear, Covid has not, like, suddenly disappeared,” Mr. Abbott said. “Covid still exists in Texas and the United States and across the globe.”
Even so, he said, “state mandates are no longer needed” because advanced treatments are now available for people with Covid-19, the state is able to test large numbers of people for the virus each day and 5.7 million vaccine shots have already been given to Texans.
Speaking to reporters at a Chamber of Commerce event in Lubbock on Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Abbott, a Republican, said that most of the mandates issued during the peak of the pandemic in the state would be lifted; he did not specify which mandates would remain. He said top elected officials in each county could still impose certain restrictions locally if hospitals in their region became dangerously full, but could not jail anyone for violating them.
“People and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate,” he said.
Target and Macy’s said on Tuesday that they would continue requiring customers and employees to wear masks, Reuters reported. General Motors and Toyota said their employees in the state would also still be required to wear masks.
Democratic leaders in the state reacted swiftly and harshly to the announcement. “What Abbott is doing is extraordinarily dangerous,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the state party chairman, said in a statement, adding, “This will kill Texans. Our country’s infectious-disease specialists have warned that we should not put our guard down, even as we make progress towards vaccinations. Abbott doesn’t care.”
In states like Florida and South Dakota, schools and businesses have been widely open for months, and many local and state officials across the country have been easing restrictions since last summer. Still, the pace of reopenings has quickened considerably in the past few days.
In Chicago, tens of thousands of children returned to public school this week, while snow-covered parks and playgrounds around the city that have been shuttered since last March were opened. Restaurants in Massachusetts were allowed to operate without capacity limits, and South Carolina erased its limits on large gatherings.
The Biden administration has warned states not to relax restrictions too soon, despite the recent decline in cases. “We stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” the director of the C.D.C., Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said at a White House virus briefing on Monday.
The nation as a whole has been averaging more than 67,000 new cases a day lately, more than at any time during the spring and summer waves of cases, according to a New York Times database.
Texas was among the first states to ease restrictions after the first wave, a move that epidemiologists believe was premature and led to the summer surge across the Sunbelt.
Though conditions in the state and the nation have improved from a huge surge over the holidays, the coronavirus is still spreading rapidly in Texas. The state has been averaging about 7,600 new cases a day recently, rebounding from a drop in February when a severe storm disrupted testing. Texas is among the top 10 states in recent spread, averaging 27 cases for every 100,000 people.
And Texans are still dying of Covid-19 in significant numbers: The state reported an average of 227 Covid-19 deaths a day over the past week, more than any other state except California.
Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston and the top elected official in Harris County, Linda Hidalgo, both Democrats, wrote to Mr. Abbott on Tuesday before his announcement, asking the governor not to end the mask mandate and calling such a move “premature and harmful.”
“We must continue the proven public health interventions most responsible for our positive case trends, and not allow overconfidence to endanger our own successes,” they wrote.
Mr. Abbott made his reopening announcement in a Mexican restaurant, on the anniversary of Texas’ declaration of independence from Mexico in 1836.
Covid-19 has already left a trail of death and despair in Brazil, one of the worst in the world. And now, the country is battling a more contagious variant, even as Brazilians toss away precautionary measures that could keep them safe.
On Tuesday, Brazil recorded more than 1,700 Covid-19 deaths, its highest single-day toll of the pandemic.
Preliminary studies suggest that the variant that swept through the city of Manaus appears able to infect some people who have already recovered from other versions of the virus. And the variant has slipped Brazil’s borders, showing up in small numbers in the United States and other countries.
Although trials of a number of vaccines indicate that they can protect against severe illness even when they do not prevent infection with the variant, most of the world has not been inoculated. That means even people who had recovered and thought they were safe for now might still be at risk, and that world leaders might, once again, be lifting restrictions too soon.
“You need vaccines to get in the way of these things,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, speaking of variants that might cause reinfections.
Brazilians hoped that they had seen the worst of the outbreak last year. Manaus, capital of the northern state of Amazonas, was hit so hard in April and May that scientists believed the city may have reached herd immunity.
But then in September, cases in the state began rising again. By January, scientists had discovered that a new variant, which became known as P.1, had become dominant in the state. Within weeks, its danger became clear as hospitals in the city ran out of oxygen amid a crush of patients, leading scores to suffocate to death.
Throughout the pandemic, researchers have said that Covid-19 reinfections appear to be extremely rare, which has allowed people who recover to presume they have immunity, at least for a while. But that was before P.1 appeared.
One way to tamp down the surge would be through vaccinations, but the rollout in Brazil has been slow.
Brazil began vaccinating health care professionals and older adults in late January. But the government has failed to secure a large enough number of doses. Wealthier countries have snapped up most of the supply, while President Jair Bolsonaro has been skeptical both of the disease’s impact and of vaccines.
Margareth Dalcolmo, a pulmonologist at Fiocruz, a prominent scientific research center, said that Brazil’s failure to mount a robust inoculation campaign had set the stage for the current crisis.
“We should be vaccinating more than a million people per day,” she said. “We aren’t, not because we don’t know how to do it, but because we don’t have enough vaccines.”
Other countries should take heed, said Ester Sabino, an infectious-disease researcher at the University of São Paulo who is among the leading experts on the P.1 variant.
“You can vaccinate your whole population and control the problem only for a short period if, in another place in the world, a new variant appears,” she said. “It will get there one day.”
The country music star Dolly Parton has another new gig: Singing the praises of coronavirus shots and getting vaccinated on camera.
Last year, Ms. Parton donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which worked with the drug maker Moderna to develop one of the first coronavirus vaccines to be authorized in the United States. The federal government eventually invested $1 billion in the creation and testing of the vaccine, but the leader of the research effort, Dr. Mark Denison, said that the singer’s donation had funded its critical early stages.
On Tuesday, Ms. Parton, 75, received a Moderna shot at Vanderbilt Health in Tennessee. “Dolly gets a dose of her own medicine,” she wrote on Twitter.
“Well, hey, it’s me,” she says to her fans in an accompanying video, a minute before a doctor arrives to inoculate her. “I’m finally gonna get my vaccine.”
“I’m so excited,” she added in the video, which racked up more than a million views within about four hours. “I’ve been waiting a while. I’m old enough to get it, and I’m smart enough to get it.”
She also broke into song (naturally), replacing the word “Jolene” in one of her best-known choruses with “vaccine.”
“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine,” she sang, embellishing the last one with her trademark Tennessee lilt. “I’m begging of you please don’t hesitate.”
“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine,” she added, “because once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.”
Just before the doctor arrived to inoculate her — or “pop me in my arm,” as she put it — she doubled down on her message.
“I know I’m trying to be funny now, but I’m dead serious about the vaccine,” she said. “I think we all want to get back to normal — whatever that is — and that would be a great shot in the arm, wouldn’t it?”
“I just want to say to all of you cowards out there: Don’t be such a chicken squat,” she added. “Get out there and get your shot.”
After weeks of waiting, Judy Franke’s vaccine breakthrough came when her phone rang at 8 p.m. one freezing February night. There were rumors of extra doses at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Ms. Franke, 73, had an hour to get there. No guarantees.
“I called my daughter and she said, ‘I’m putting my boots on right now,’” said Ms. Franke, a retired teacher with a weakened immune system.
The clamor for hard-to-get vaccines has created armies of anxious Americans who haunt pharmacies at the end of the day in search of an extra, expiring dose and drive from clinic to clinic hoping that someone was a no-show to their appointment.
Some pharmacists have even given them a nickname: Vaccine lurkers.
Even with inoculation rates accelerating and new vaccines entering the market, finding a shot remains out of reach for many, nearly three months into the country’s vaccination campaign. Websites crash. Appointments are scarce.
The leftover shots exist because the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have a limited life span once they are thawed and mixed. When no-shows or miscalculations leave pharmacies and clinics with extras, they have mere hours to use the vaccines or risk having to throw them away.
And so, tens of thousands of people have banded together on social-media groups. They trade tips about which Walmarts have extra doses. They report on whether besieged pharmacies are even answering the phone. They speculate about whether a looming blizzard might keep enough people home to free up a slot.
“It’s like buying Bruce Springsteen tickets,” said Maura Caldwell, who started a Facebook page called Minneapolis Vaccine Hunters to help people navigate the search for appointments. The group has about 20,000 members.
Health experts said the scavenger hunt for leftovers highlighted the persistent disparities in the U.S. vaccination rollout, where access to lifesaving medicine can hinge on computer savvy, personal connections and the ability to drop everything to snag an expiring dose.
In Minnesota, when Ms. Franke arrived at the convention center, there were about 20 other people already milling around in the lobby, she said, and a health worker quickly emerged to inform them that there were no leftovers.
But many in the crowd stuck around, and after a half-hour, the vaccination team allowed people 65 and older, teachers and emergency responders to get their shots. Ms. Franke lined up and said she cried with relief on the car ride home to the suburbs.