Texas reopens ‘100%’ as US vaccination drive gains pace

Houston, March 11 (AFP/APP): Texas lifted its mask mandate and capacity restrictions on restaurants and other businesses Wednesday, despite experts warning the “100 percent” relaxation of coronavirus curbs will exacerbate the spread of worrying variants.

The Lone Star State became the fifth to rescind its face covering order in a sign of increasing optimism about the pandemic in the world’s hardest hit country, where the infection rate has fallen dramatically since January but still remains high in absolute terms.

“It is now time to open Texas 100 percent,” said Governor Greg Abbott when he announced his plans to ease restrictions last week. The Texas Rangers meanwhile are set to become the first major US professional sports team to welcome back a capacity crowd after announcing ticketing plans for the upcoming baseball season on Wednesday.

The Rangers said their 40,300-capacity ballpark would operate at full capacity for two exhibition games against Milwaukee on March 29-30 and the season opener against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 5.

The moves came as the immunization campaign was gathering momentum, with 62 million people so far receiving one or more doses — about 19 percent of the adult population — and Alaska became the first state to open up the shots to anyone aged 16 or over.

The White House on Wednesday announced plans to acquire 100 million more vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, giving the United States contingency capacity as it targets inoculating the adult population of 270 million people by May.

“We need maximum flexibility, there’s always a chance that we’ll encounter unexpected challenges, or there’ll be a new need for a vaccination effort,” said President Joe Biden, explaining the decision. He added: “If we have a surplus, we’re going to share it with the rest of the world,” stressing the US had committed $4 billion to Covax, the global initiative to distribute vaccines to lower-income countries.

Biden said he would launch the next phase of the country’s Covid response in a primetime address Thursday.

In downtown Houston, the biggest city of the nation’s second most populous state, the overwhelming majority of people continued to wear their masks despite the new order. Businessman Omar Abu-Shaaban called the move a politically motivated nod to the governor’s anti-science Republican base. “I don’t think he had the health of the people in mind,” he said.

But 22-year-old Kade Phillips told AFP he supported the decision. “I think it’s good for everyone to be able to make their own choice and what they choose for their body,” he said. Popular grocery chains had already said they would keep their mask orders in place, while cities can also keep the orders on municipal buildings and there are also no changes to the rule on federal property

. Support for mask measures is strongly divided along political lines, with people in more conservative and rural parts of the country more likely to view them as an affront to personal freedom. More than 529,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 but while cases have declined dramatically since the January 11 peak, the infection rate has been plateauing since the last week of February at around 60,000 new cases per day.

Peter Hotez, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, tweeted he was worried about a “perfect storm” coming to Texas with the lifting of the mask mandate, one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, rising cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first seen in Britain, an uptick in the test positivity rate and spring break.

In Maryland, which borders the capital Washington, Governor Larry Hogan announced that effective Friday the state would lift capacity limits on both outdoor and indoor dining, retail businesses and places of worship and allow large outdoor and indoor venues to begin operating at 50 percent capacity.

And Los Angeles and southern California will be allowed to partially reopen indoor dining and movie theaters from this weekend, Governor Gavin Newsom said, as the region hit key health criteria. Hotez cautioned against a “national race to the bottom” adding that while the United States doesn’t have enough vaccines yet, it will in two months’ time. “We don’t have to needlessly lose American lives in the spring of 2021,” he said.

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