HOUSTON — The White House COVID-19 Response Team says, “now is not the time to release all restrictions” and that the next few months are “pivotal” in the fight against the pandemic.
The comments were in response to a question about Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to lift most statewide COVID-19 restrictions including the mask mandate.
“I think we at the CDC have been very clear that now is not the time to release all restrictions,” Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said in a briefing Wednesday morning. “The next month or two is really pivotal with how this pandemic goes as we scale up vaccinations, we really do need to decrease the amount of the virus that is circulating as we are trying to vaccinate all of the public.”
Abbott announced Tuesday he is lifting the statewide mask mandate and allowing all Texas businesses to reopen at full capacity beginning March 10.
Dr. Walensky also explained that Americans are still empowered to do what is necessary to protect their health and the community against the spread of the coronavirus.
“I will also note that every individual is empowered to do the right thing here regardless of what the states decide, for personal health, for public health, for the health of their loved ones, and communities,” she said. “I would still encourage individuals to wear a mask, to socially distance, to do the right thing to protect their own health.”
Jeffrey Zients, Counselor to the President, Coronavirus Response Coordinator said President Joe Biden is 100 percent behind Dr. Walensky and the CDC’s recommendations.
“We think that it is critically important that over the next period of time, we know it can save tens of thousands of lives if people do this,” he said. “We strongly encourage people to continue to wear masks. Mayors, governors and others, recognizing they have difficult decisions to make, to keep the course.”
Texas is not the only state lifting COVID restrictions, and Zeints says the federal government is using its full extent of the areas it controls to help stop the spread.
“We hope other elected officials who have the authority in their domains will in fact listen, we are realistic enough to recognize that everybody is not going to pay attention to what we say but we think this is very important.”
Many Houston area leaders are critical of Abbott’s decision to lift most statewide COVID restrictions while others say it's long overdue.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the decision puts Texans at risk of another surge.
“What I see here is a premature and misguided discussion putting our community at risk and it’s unnecessary because we’re headed where we need to go,” Hidalgo said.
She pointed out Harris County’s positivity rate is more than double the ideal level and 25 percent of ICU patients here have COVID.
Hidalgo even accused Abbott of playing politics and trying to distract from last week’s winter storm disaster with ERCOT.
Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a letter to Abbott urging him to keep the mask law to avoid sending mixed signals about the COVID threat.
Turner said he's "disgusted" by the governor's decision.
"You think just because the governor does this, it makes the virus go away? Turner said. "Every time we start moving in the right direction, the governor steps in and sets us back and makes all of our jobs harder. He minimizes the sacrifices of people and businesses. I just don't get it."
The strongest criticism came from former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke.
He called the decision "a death warrant for Texas" and accused Abbott of "killing the people of Texas.”
On the other side of the aisle, Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw retweeted Abbott with the caption "Happy Independence Day, Texas."
As a vocal opponent of restricting businesses, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough praised Abbott's actions.
"And I have to say this: it’s been a long time coming,” Keough said in a video posted to his Facebook. “We can’t have a healthy community without a healthy economy."
The governor’s order allows county judges to limit capacity to no lower than 50 percent if COVID patients take up 15 percent or more of the hospital region’s beds for a week straight.