Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday announced that the local coronavirus metrics and an ample supply of vaccines finally made her comfortable enough to lower the county’s COVID-19 threat level.
“So many times I’ve been at this podium to deliver bad news, to talk about the challenges ahead, to talk about the sacrifices we need to make,” Hidalgo said, speaking for the first time in nearly a year without wearing a face mask in public. “But today, I’m here with very good news,” namely that the county’s coronavirus threat rating had been lowered to the orange, stage 2 level.
Now, instead of recommending that all county residents should limit their contact with the outside world, Hidalgo and the county health department are giving their blessing for any fully vaccinated residents to stop wearing face masks and practicing social distancing in all but a few scenarios or when required by business or healthcare facilities, in line with the new guidelines for vaccinated people the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued last week.
“[But] unvaccinated residents,” Hidalgo said, “should continue to minimize contact with folks they don’t live with, avoiding especially medium and large gatherings.” Those residents who haven’t yet been vaccinated “should also continue to wear masks and physically distance,” she said.
Hidalgo also announced Tuesday that Harris County’s libraries would open for in-person visitors at 50 percent capacity starting Wednesday, but that masks would still be recommended for library patrons.
Hidalgo’s decision to finally lower the local threat level and do away with strict safety recommendations regardless of vaccination status came just days after the CDC issued sweeping new recommendations that said fully vaccinated people could stop wearing face masks and social distancing in all but a few specific scenarios, like when traveling or when visiting healthcare facilities or businesses that still require mask use.
The threat level shift also came less than a week after Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CDC for use in 12 to 15-year-olds.
Now that a large number of children can be vaccinated and that Harris County’s vaccine supply has easily outstripped the local demand for shots, Hidalgo said she finally felt comfortable enough to adjust the threat level guidance. She also said the new threat level system will de-emphazie the local COVID-19 test positivity rate due to the significant dropoff in people getting tested, one of the only metrics under the old system that hadn’t hit the threshold for rolling back to a lower threat level and that experts told Hidalgo was likely artificially high given the low local test numbers.
Hidalgo originally unveiled the threat level system in June 2020. Two weeks after its unveiling, she declared Harris County was at the highest danger level — a red alert — on June 26. The shift came with the recommendation from Hidalgo and county public health officials that all county residents should only leave home if absolutely necessary and avoid all contact with people outside of a person’s household.
Harris County stayed at red alert for COVID-19 for nearly the next 11 months, although Hidalgo’s critics and medical experts increasingly called out the red alert as confusing and not reflective of the marked improvement in countywide coronavirus metrics since January, like falling hospitalizations and a significant decrease in the number of new daily cases of the disease and deaths from the virus.
“It’s a moment to celebrate,” Hidalgo said Tuesday, “and let’s keep the good news coming by getting those vaccines.”
Just before Hidalgo made her announcement, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a new executive order banning all government entities — “including counties, cities, school districts, public health authorities, or government officials” — from requiring mask-wearing or issuing mask mandates.
Abbott specifically highlighted public schools, whom he said can only keep their current mask rules in place through June 4. “After June 4, no student, teacher, parent, or other staff member or visitor can be required to wear a mask while on campus,” Abbott’s announcement read.
Starting May 21, any entity or official who tries to issue a mask mandate can be fined up to $1,000 according to Abbott’s order. According to the order, there are a few government-run facilities that can still require masks: “state-supported living centers, government-owned or operated hospitals, Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities, Texas Juvenile Justice Department facilities, and county and municipal jails.”
“Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities,” Abbott said in a statement Tuesday. “We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans’ liberty to choose whether or not they mask up.”
Hidalgo said that she hadn’t had time to read Abbott’s latest order before making her threat level announcement, but cautioned that she thinks it’s too early for Texas schools to go completely maskless, and asked local parents and students to consider masking-up voluntarily when on a campus.
“These kids are around teachers and around classmates who may not have gotten the vaccine,” she said. “They can spread it. So just think about that when you’re deciding what to do and what your child should do.”
Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina released the following statement on Abbott’s order:
The Texas State Teachers Association believes Gov. Greg Abbott’s order ending all masking requirements in Texas public schools, effective June 4, is premature. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that schools require masks and social distancing for the remainder of the school year because many students have not been vaccinated and will not complete their two-dose regimen of Pfizer vaccines until well into the summer. And many of these children will be attending in-person summer school.
FDA approval for vaccinating children aged 12-15 was issued only last week, and there has been no approval for vaccinating children younger than 12.
The governor should have waited until the CDC issues new mask guidelines for the 2021-22 school year before acting on masking requirements in public schools. We know some school districts already have ended their mask mandates, and we believe that also is ill-advised. The health and safety of our students, educators and communities must remain our first priority as we attempt to emerge from this pandemic.
A copy of Abbott’s latest order is embedded below.
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