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Joe Biden says decision to lift mask-wearing rules in Texas ‘Neanderthal thinking'

US President Joe Biden. Picture by Patrick Semansky
Jake Bleiberg and Paul J Weber, Associated Press Reporters

US President Joe Biden has described the decision to wind down virus restrictions in Texas – America’s second largest state – as “Neanderthal thinking”.

Republican governor Greg Abbott’s repeal of most Covid-19 restrictions – saying it was “time to open Texas 100%” – reverberated across the state and to the White House, a day after one of the country’s most dramatic rollbacks of rules intended to slow the spread of the virus.

The end of Texas’ mask mandate is giving Lucy Alanis second thoughts about one of her occasional indulgences during the coronavirus pandemic: dining in at restaurants.

“I guess I’m a little scared,” said Ms Alanis, 27, a florist in Dallas.

Businesses in Texas shed rules, city leaders plotted new safeguards and the state’s five million schoolchildren largely remained under orders to keep wearing masks, at least for now.

The pushback to Mr Abbott’s decision included one of his own pandemic advisers, who said he was not consulted ahead of time.

Texas has another week before the mandates end, but what daily life will look like after that remains unsettled after Mr Abbott made the state the largest in the US to no longer require masks, which health experts say is among the most effective ways to curb the spread of the virus.

The mask mandate, which has been in place since July, and occupancy limits on restaurants and retail stores end on March 10. Already, some stores announced they still will not allow maskless customers.

It is yet another test for businesses that have struggled to strike a balance between safety and survival over the past year.

Houston police chief Art Acevedo said his officers will continue wearing masks. He criticised Mr Abbott over the repeal and worries about more aggressive encounters like one in December, when a customer confronted over a mask at a Houston bar smashed a glass over an employee’s head.

“We can see conflict coming, sadly,” Mr Acevedo said. “And I think that a lot of this is going to be self-inflicted.”

Mr Abbott said “personal vigilance” among Texans remained essential but that mandates were no longer needed, emphasising the increasing availability of vaccines. On Wednesday, Texas health officials announced that teachers and childcare workers were now eligible to be vaccinated.

The virus has killed more than 43,000 people in Texas, behind only California and New York. Like most of the country, new cases statewide have fallen rapidly in recent weeks from record levels in January. But the toll still remains significant, including nearly 300 newly reported deaths on Wednesday.

Still, federal health officials warn that the pandemic is far from over and that states should not let their guard down. Even one of Mr Abbott’s own pandemic advisers disagreed with the move.

“I don’t think this is the right time,” said Dr Mark McClellan, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, who also told the Associated Press in an email that he was not consulted before the repeals were announced. “Texas has been making some real progress but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.”

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