It’s been over a month since Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the state’s mask mandate and ended business restrictions, but at least for now, Texas has not become the epicenter of a coronavirus surge as some predicted.
After Abbott announced COVID-19 restrictions would end on March 10, President Joe Biden called the decision a “big mistake” and that it reflected “Neanderthal thinking.” A slew of other political figures thought the decision was premature and a way to distract people from the February winter storm and power outage that killed at least 111 Texans.
“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” Abbott said in Lubbock on March 2, joined by Lubbock business leaders at Montelongo’s Mexican Restaurant. “Everybody who wants to work should have the opportunity. Every business that wants to be open should be open.”
Public health experts said it was premature to end the mandates and the governor should’ve waited longer until more people were vaccinated. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said at the time that he wished Abbott would have waited until after spring break because holidays usually brought a surge along with them.
But Abbott’s decision seems to have paid off. As some states, such as Michigan, have seen a spike in cases, Texas has been steady. The number of daily cases have fallen 58% since Abbott announced his decision, down from 6,600 to 2,800 on Thursday. Hospitalizations are down 48% and deaths have continued to decline.
Tarrant and Dallas county hospitalizations are expected to remain the same or slightly increase over the next three weeks, according to a UT Southwestern model.
A mix of vaccinations, continued mask wearing, people already having immunity and the weather warming up has slowed down the spread, said Diana Cervantes, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at UNT Health Science Center.
“I think they took some gambles and it paid off,” she said.
As of Friday morning, Texas had of its residents 16 and older and Tarrant County is approaching 1 million doses administered. Experts predict herd immunity by mid-June in North Texas.
Cervantes still advises caution as a surge can happen at any given time.
Vinny Taneja, Tarrant County’s Public Health Director, agrees with Cervantes. On Tuesday, he was worried about the uptick in the virus’ spread. As of Friday, every infected person was transmitting the virus to at least one other person, meaning the spread was increasing.
Taneja is also worried that the rapid decline in cases, positivity rate and hospitalizations had slowed, which could indicate that something is brewing. He cautioned COVID-19 is still in the community and people should continue to follow safety protocols.
Cervantes believes, in general, most people have taken the virus seriously and not ditched safety measures. If anything, lifting the mask mandate made people want to be safer. On March 10, people didn’t immediately take off the masks and go back to pre-pandemic times, Cervantes said. Most large businesses like Walmart, Target, Kroger, HEB and others are still requiring mask and other coronavirus protocols.
The UT Southwestern model is heavily dependent on how well people keep masking and following other protocols. The model predicts a small uptick in cases soon, but nothing that was seen during the holidays and last summer. Long-term, the model predicts the virus to die down as vaccination efforts continue.
Macy Moore, co-owner of HopFusion Ale Works in the Near Southside, previously told the Star-Telegram that he planned to enforce face coverings at his business. But now, he isn’t doing so to avoid altercations with customers.
When Abbott made the announcement, Moore was interviewed by CNN about his mask requirement. He said immediately received death threats.
“I’m tired of fighting,” he said.
But still, Moore said 80% of his customers come in wearing masks. Most of his employees are vaccinated and they are required to wear masks. Everyone he asks says they’ve been vaccinated and it gives him ease.
Nora Palomino, manager of Los Zarapes restaurant in north Fort Worth, has continued to require masks. She has lost some regulars, but at least half of the customers who come in are already wearing masks, she said. Those who don’t are provided with masks.
Eliazar Salinas III, owner of Frezko Taco Spot in Fort Worth, did not require masks once the order went away, citing that other businesses wouldn’t and that it was not worth getting into fights with people.
Tarrant County and the city of Fort Worth have required masks in their buildings. Whitley believes people have grown accustomed to wearing masks and are making the right choice not only for themselves but for others.
“A vast majority of people have come around to believing that the masks make a difference,” Whitley said.