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As States Lift Mask Mandates, Experts Warn Against Letting Up on COVID Precautions

texas face mask

Montinique Monroe / Stringer / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • In February, Texas became one of five states to announce rollbacks of mask mandates.
  • The last week of February saw an uptick in COVID-19 cases following six weeks of decline.
  • Experts from the CDC and WHO warn against dropping COVID-19 precaution measures prematurely.

Top officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) are warning that an ending to the pandemic is not as near as it may appear.

At a media briefing Monday, March 1, Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said it is “premature” and “unrealistic” to think that the pandemic will come to an end this year, even as the arrival of new vaccines bring down hospitalization and death rates.

The warning comes at a time when U.S. states are scaling back public health mandates aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. On Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott lifted the state’s mask mandate and allowed all businesses and facilities to open to full capacity.

Texas is now one of 16 states that have either lifted mask mandates or never imposed one, according to AARP.

Lifted Mask Mandate
  • Texas

  • Mississippi

  • Iowa

  • Montana

  • North Dakota

Never Imposed Mask Mandate
  • Alaska

  • Arizona

  • Florida

  • Georgia

  • Idaho

  • Missouri

  • Nebraska

  • Oklahoma

  • South Carolina

  • South Dakota

  • Tennessee

In the early weeks of 2021, states from Arizona to Michigan to California have also eased restrictions on businesses and facilities.

Even with increased distribution of vaccines, public health officials warn that the loosening of public health restrictions, paired with the rapid spread of new variants, could stall recent gains in the efforts to contain the pandemic.

Variants Threaten to Hinder Progress

In recent weeks, new viral variants have taken hold in regions across the country. Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says that variants of SARS-CoV-2 now account for about 10% of U.S. cases.

The B.1.1.7 variant, which emerged in the U.K. is 50% more transmissible than the strain that has been circulating in the U.S. More than 3,100 infections involved variant strains, reports the CDC, and the B.1.1.7 strain accounted for more than 3,000 of those.

"Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained," Walensky said at a March 1 White House press briefing.

"I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19," she said.

Masks Are Essential to Keeping Case Counts Down

Ali Mokdad, PhD, a professor of health metrics sciences at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and chief strategy officer for population health at the University of Washington, says that the continuation of a downward trend in COVID-19 cases hinges on expanded access to vaccine. And most crucially, he says, Americans must not let down their guards prematurely.

“Will Americans change the behavior that helped us to contain this pandemic and bring it down: wearing masks staying away from each other and avoiding gatherings? Will they start celebrating as the cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are coming down?” Mokdad asks Verywell. “Unfortunately, our experience with that is very bad.”

With the reversal of COVID-protective mandates in states across the country, the hard-won declines in infections appeared to plateau at the end of February. What effect the lifting of the Texas mask mandate will have is unknown.

"Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions," Walensky said. "Although we have been experiencing large declines in cases and hospital admissions over the past six weeks, these declines follow the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic."

What This Means For You

As COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available in the U.S., there is a chance that cases may continue to decline from a peak this winter. But this is contingent on everyone continuing to wear masks and practice social distancing until public health experts say it is safe not to.

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  1. World Health Organization. COVID-19 virtual press conference transcript - 1 March 2021. March 2, 2021.

  2. Markowitz A. State-by-State Guide to Face Mask Requirements. AARP. March 4, 2021.

  3. AARP. List of coronavirus-related restrictions in every state. Updated March 8, 2021.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Emergence of SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 lineage—United States, December 29, 2020–January 12, 2021. MMWR. 2021;70(3):95–99. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm7003e2

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. US COVID-19 cases caused by variants. Updated March 7, 2021.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trends in number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the US reported to CDC, by state/territory. Updated March 8, 2021.