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Texas biggest US state to lift mask rules

Texas is lifting its mask mandate, making it the largest US state to end an order to prevent coronavirus spread amid the deaths of more than 42,000 residents.

Republican Governor Greg Abbott has faced sustained criticism from his party over the statewide edict, imposed eight months ago, as well as other restrictions on businesses Texas will also scuttle next week.

The mask order was only ever lightly enforced, even during the worst outbreaks of the pandemic.

The state was removing limits on the number of diners or customers allowed inside businesses, Abbott said.

He said the new rules would take effect on March 10, unleashing a wave of alarm from big city mayors and leaders along the US-Mexico border, where the virus has been especially rampant.

“Removing statewide mandates does not end personal responsibility,” said Abbott, speaking from a crowded dining room where many surrounding him were not masked.

“It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed,” he said.

Federal health officials this week urgently warned states to not let their guard down, warning that the pandemic is far from over.

Still, governors across the US are easing coronavirus restrictions.

Like the rest of the country, Texas has seen the number of cases and deaths plunge.

Hospitalisations are at the lowest levels since October and the seven-day rolling average of positive tests has dropped to about 7600 cases, down from more than 10,000 in mid-February.

Only California and New York have reported more COVID-19 deaths than Texas.

“Absolutely reckless,” California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, tweeted in response to Abbott’s announcement.

Texas is doing away with the restrictions just ahead of the spring break holiday, which health experts worry could lead to more spread as people travel.

“The fact that things are headed in the right direction doesn’t mean we have succeeded in eradicating the risk,” said Dr Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas.

She said the recent deadly winter freeze that left millions of Texans without power – forcing families to shelter closely with others who still had heat – could amplify transmission of the virus in the weeks ahead.

Early in the pandemic, Abbott stripped local officials of power to implement tougher restrictions but now says counties can impose “mitigation strategies” if virus hospitalisations exceed 15 per cent of all hospital capacity in their region.

However he forbade local officials imposing penalties for not wearing a face covering.

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