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Leaders and businesses say masks are essential as Texas and Mississippi lift Covid-19 restrictions

Leaders and businesses across the United States are pushing back against states lifting mask mandates by doubling down on their commitment to enforcing Covid-19 precautions as variants continue to cause concern.

This week, Texas and Mississippi joined the list of states expanding business capacity and lifting the mandates for residents to wear masks. In Texas, the mandates are no longer necessary and a restoration of normalcy is urgent, a representative for Gov. Greg Abbott said.

During a Friday press conference, Abbott reiterated that Texas is “in a situation where it is safe to open up 100%,” and that every Texan has “learned for the past year the safe strategies to use to make sure they remain safe.”

Abbott added: “We do encourage people to continue to wear a face mask, to continue to practice the safe practices that will ensure we will be able to get everybody back to work with Texas continuing to lead the United States of America in economic growth and job creation.”

Though the rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths have decreased in many states since January, tens of thousands of Americans are still being infected daily, and more transmissible variants have been spreading, threatening another surge.

“Please continue to wear a mask. What some other states are doing is reckless,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said. “We’ve seen them do it before. They paid the price.”

And in Texas, many businesses are still encouraging mask use. The grocery store chain H-E-B said Thursday that employees will still be required and guests will be asked to wear masks. The Texas Restaurant Association also will continue to encourage mask use.

In Mississippi, Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons called Gov. Tate Reeves’ decision to loosen restrictions “premature and reckless.”

“We are at a crucial moment in the fight against this disease, and the path is unclear,” Simmons told CNN. “We cannot let our guards down.”

In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice said Friday that restaurants, bars and other businesses including gyms, fitness centers and museums may open with 100% seating capacity with social distancing.

Justice urged all people to comply with the mask mandate unless eating or drinking.

“We’ve got over half, well over half, of our total population in this state that’s above 65 years of age and older that have gotten shots and that are protected,” Justice said.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont on Friday defended his decision to reopen some businesses at full capacity with a mask mandate.

“So many of our people — well over 20% — have been vaccinated, the vast majority of whom are over 55, where you’re most likely to suffer complications. Our hospitalization is down. So, we thought, this is something we know we can do safely,” Lamont said.

About 70% to 85% of people must achieve immunity, either by surviving Covid-19 or receiving a vaccine, to reach herd immunity, the point at which enough people are protected against a disease that it cannot spread through the population.

Lamont announced Thursday that Connecticut will reopen restaurants, retail, libraries, personal services and indoor recreation at full capacity on March 19.

CDC guidance coming soon for the vaccinated

Covid-19 cases and death rates slow down in counties where states require masks, according to data released Friday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in counties where states allow on-site restaurant dining, illness and death rates appear to speed up.

“This report is a critical reminder that with the current levels of Covid-19 in communities and the continued spread of more transmissible coronavirus variants — which have now been detected in 48 states — strictly following prevention measures remains essential for putting an end to this pandemic,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. “It also serves as a warning about premature lifting of these prevention measures.”

Meantime, CDC guidance for people who have been vaccinated is coming soon, Walensky said. The guidance had been expected to release this week.

“Our goal and what is most important is that people who have been vaccinated and those not yet vaccinated are able to understand the steps they can take to protect themselves and their loved ones,” she said.

Fauci says it’s still too soon

Dr. Anthony Fauci said the decision by some states to do away with mask mandates and allow businesses to open at full capacity was “inexplicable.”

The US shouldn’t ease restrictions in place to prevent Covid-19 before the number of new cases falls below 10,000 daily, “and maybe even considerably less than that,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said Thursday.

The last time the US saw fewer than 10,000 new daily cases was almost a year ago, on March 22.

“We’re now up to about 2 million vaccinations per day,” Fauci said. “That means every day that goes by, every week that goes by, you have more and more people protected.”

Push to vaccinate teachers and reopen schools

Many states are putting a priority on vaccinating teachers and school staff to reopen campuses as soon as possible.

Thirty-eight states and Washington, DC, allow teachers to receive the vaccine. And two more may soon be added to the list.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said those who work in education and child care will be among the 300,000 to 400,000 additional residents eligible for the vaccine next week.

And Rhode Island officials likely will announce a plan next week to “get shots in the arm of all teachers and school staff,” Gov. Daniel McKee said.

California, meanwhile, will invest billions of dollars in reopening schools, with Gov. Gavin Newsom signing the funding into law on Friday.

The state is home more that 1,000 school districts that will be eligible to receive up to $2 billion in incentives if they reopen by the end of March. Another $4.6 billion will go toward addressing learning loss induced by a year of online learning.

The law, which garnered bipartisan support, will also fund personal protective equipment, ventilation improvements, testing and contact tracing.

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