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RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas – Arguing that Texas is over the worst of COVID-19, Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday lifted his mask mandate and increased the capacity of all businesses and facilities in the state to 100 percent. 

South Texas leaders swiftly slammed Abbott’s decision and told local residents and businesses to continue to adhere to the advice of health experts.

Among those critical of the governor’s new ruling are Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña, state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, and South Padre Island City Council member Kerry Schwartz.

The Governor made his announcement at Montelongo’s Mexican Restaurant in Lubbock. He was addressing the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce. 

“With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus,” Abbott said. 

“We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent. Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared, but it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations, and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced March 2 that mask mandates and business capacity restrictions will be lifted in Texas. (Photo: Office of the Texas Governor)

Abbott said the announcement does not abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year. 

“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,” he said.

Abbott pointed out that nearly 5.7 million vaccine shots have been administered to Texans, and the state is now administering almost one million shots each week. He said that by next Wednesday, about seven million shots will have been administered in Texas He said that and over half of seniors in Texas will have received a vaccine shot. 

Abbott said he was issuing a new executive order that rescinds most of his earlier executive orders related to COVID-19. Effective March 10 all businesses of any type may open to 100 percent capacity. Additionally, he said, the new order ends the statewide mask mandate in Texas. He said businesses may still limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols at their own discretion. 

According to the new executive order, if COVID-19 hospitalizations in any of the 22 hospital regions in Texas get above 15 percent of the hospital bed capacity in that region for seven straight days, a county judge in that region may use COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

However, county judges may not impose jail time for not following COVID-19 orders nor may any penalties be imposed for failing to wear a face mask. If restrictions are imposed at a county level, those restrictions may not include reducing capacity to less than 50 percent for any type of entity. 

Ezekiel Jonathan “Zeke” Emanuel is an oncologist and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He is also Vice Provost for Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and was one of 16 members of President Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board.

Asked about Abbott’s new ruling on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, Emanuel said: “This is a terrible idea. First of all we are not anywhere near there, in terms of the number of cases. We are at about 60,000 cases per day, we are still at about 1,100 per day. We do not have enough vaccine out there to reduce the numbers enough and we should not be rushing in to indoor dining, to indoor retail, to all the things that Gov. Abbott said should be 100 percent. It is very irresponsible.”

Emanuel pointed out that some states reopened their economies way too early last year. 

“We did this in the Spring when cases went up and then started coming down and just opened everything up instead of waiting. We need to wait two or three more months in this very, very cautious mode, respecting all the public health measures in order to get the numbers really low and get vaccines out there.C

Dr. Melendez, Hidalgo County’s health authority, made a similar comment on KURV News Talk 710.

“You remember that it took six weeks for 15 people to die and then after we opened up, within four or five weeks, 30 people were dying a day. Then, within two months, 50 or 60 people were dying a day. The only thing that was different was that we opened up the community to whatever people wanted to do,” Melendez said.

The “last thing” to do during this pandemic is stop the mask mandate, Melendez added.

Judge Vera of Starr County, said: “While I appreciate Governor Abbott’s desire to attempt to return to normalcy, I remain deeply concerned that in Starr County the decision comes too soon. We have only recently begun to see some reduction in infection rates and fallen below the high hospitalization threshold of a week ago.”

Vera urged Starr County residents to continue to adhere to the advice of health experts.

“We ask that all of our residents to continue to adhere to capacity and safety protocols that protect their employees and patrons. I strongly encourage Starr County businesses to continue to operate at the current 75 percent capacity and require the use of masks for everyone until the majority of our residents are vaccinated.”

Vera added: “We are confident that together we are on the right path in combating the spread of this disease, but any misconceptions or false confidence in particular as it relates to the removal of the mask mandate could prove deadly in our community. The road is long, but we can get their together.”

Judge Cortez of Hidalgo County said: “I appreciate Governor Abbott’s desire to return to normalcy, but I remain concerned that, at least in Hidalgo County, we may be moving too quickly. We only fell below the high hospitalization threshold a week ago, which suggests we are on the right path in combating the spread of this disease, but I would hate to see a rise in case numbers if people begin to relax caution – particularly as it relates to the removal of the mask mandate.”

SPI City Council Member Schwartz said: “It is a sad day. He (Abbott) is going against CDC recommendations and putting so many lives at risk. I sure hope cases don’t explode in the next couple of weeks. He is putting politics above human life.”

CDC stands for the Centers for Disease Control.

Mayor O’Caña of Mission said: “I fully understand the need and the desire to reopen, but our hospitalizations just began to decrease and vaccinations are still in the early stages. While everyone can agree that the precautionary measures taken by the community have been working, the virus is still here.”

O’Caña said the key to stopping the community spread of the coronavirus in Mission is to “continue following guidelines like social distancing, wearing masks, good hygiene and testing.”

He said all Mission city facilities will continue to require masks for staff and visitors. He said that includes every City of Mission building, including the CEED (Center for Economic Development), the Greater Mission Chamber of Commerce and any facilities leased by the City.

Sen. Lucio said that while he respects Abbott’s authority to revoke mandates, he will continue to wear a mask in public.

“I highly recommend that all Texans continue to do so as well,” Lucio said. “As Governor Abbott mentioned, COVID-19 is nowhere near over. We must all continue to do our part to stop the transmission of this deadly virus. We know the techniques that work – wearing masks, social distancing while in public, and avoid large gatherings. As a record number of Texans begin to get vaccinated each day, I am thankful for the progress we have made so far.”

Lucio added: “We will continue to observe the latest medical and scientific data as it becomes available. In the meantime, let’s keep doing our part to keep each other safe and healthy.”

U.S. Rep. Gonzalez said Abbot’s decision to relax social distancing rules is premature.

“As the vaccine is rolled out, we should not let our guard down. Hospitalization rates have been dropping because of many factors, including that we as a community have been mitigating potential exposure to COVID-19 by wearing masks, limiting capacity at bars and restaurants and practicing social distancing,” Gonzalez said.

“I want our economy in Texas to thrive, but we cannot do that at the expense of our public health. This decision is premature and I hope businesses lead by taking the health and safety of other Texans seriously with the implementation of this new executive order next week.”

Asked where Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño stands on the issue, Melissa Elizardi, public relations officer for Cameron County said: “The effective date on Governor Abbott’s Executive Order is March 10, 2021. Our entire team is currently reviewing the newly released Order.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows a man with COVID-19, wearing a protective cover, being transferred from the emergency room to a COVID-19 unit at Starr County Memorial Hospital in Rio Grande City, Texas. (Photo credit: Eric Gay/AP News)


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