On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, ended his state’s mask mandate and boasted in all-caps on Twitter that “Texas is OPEN 100%. EVERYTHING.”

But public health experts and local officials in Texas and in Mississippi, where Gov. Tate Reeves, R, announced similar plans on Tuesday, had a starkly different message for residents: wear masks anyway and keep practicing social distancing.

“If you’re interested in knowing what you can get away with, listen to the governor,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat who has advocated for tougher restrictions as the county’s chief elected official, said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “If you’re interested in knowing what doctors say will keep you, your business, and your family safe, listen to me and the doctors.”

The backlash against Abbott and Reeves’ moves is fueled by a stalling drop in new cases this week amid rising concerns that highly transmissible new variants of the coronavirus could keep the pandemic from significantly ebbing until summer at the earliest. With both Texas and Mississippi still in the top ten deaths per capita among U.S. states, health officials warned that easing restrictions before vaccines have been widely distributed could cause another spike in cases and deaths.

“It’s still too early,” Philip Huang, Dallas county’s health director said on Tuesday, The Dallas Morning News reported. “We’d all love to get back to normal. [But] it’s not the time to relax.”

The move to reopen Texas and Mississippi is the latest flash point between politicians, particularly in the GOP, pushing for a return to normal and experts who say the pandemic is not yet over. Some other states, including Iowa and Montana, lifted mask mandates last month. Even Democrat-controlled states hit hard by the pandemic have recently moved to lessen restrictions, with New York allowing stadiums to host concerts and California permitting indoor dining in many counties.

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Abbott on Tuesday issued an executive order allowing Texas businesses to operate at full capacity and revoking a statewide mask mandate. The order also curtailed local officials’ ability to impose tougher restrictions in their communities, by barring countywide mask mandates and removing jail and other penalties for those who do not follow local coronavirus rules. Existing restrictions will be lifted on March 10, according to the order.

In a similar move, Reeves announced Tuesday that businesses in his state would be allowed to fully reopen on Wednesday and that masks would no longer be required by the state.

“If businesses or individuals decide to take additional precautions, they are absolutely within their rights,” Reeves said at a news conference on Tuesday “In fact, it may be smart. But we are not going to continue to use the heavy hand of government when it is no longer justified by the reality we see around us.”

The number of new daily cases and deaths are down from record peaks this winter in both states. Texas has reported more than 2.6 million cases and more than 43,200 deaths since the start of the pandemic. Mississippi has reported more than 295,000 cases and more than 6,700 deaths over the same period.

However, many experts said both states are still in dangerous territory. Texas had the fifth highest number of daily deaths per capita and was ninth in daily reported cases per capita as of early Wednesday, according to a Washington Post analysis. Mississippi also ranked among the top ten states for per capita daily deaths.

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Mississippi’s state health officer Thomas Dobbs, who also spoke at the governor’s news conference, urged people to continue taking precautions and to avoid crowded indoor spaces — even if they are now legally allowed to do so.

“Do stuff outdoors, don’t group together indoors with a lot of folks,” Dobbs said. “There’s no way in heck I would go sit in a crowded bar right now, indoors or out really. Please exercise caution.”

The Mississippi Health Department also encouraged older residents and people with preexisting conditions to continue to isolate within their household. Dobbs warned that returning to prepandemic behavior could spell disaster for the state’s efforts to control the virus.

“You can catch COVID,” he said on Tuesday. “And we can mess this up.”

The Republican governors’ decisions to walk back COVID restrictions was warmly embraced by many conservatives. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R, said in a statement that reopening businesses without restrictions would “help us restore the livelihoods of millions of Texans even faster.” And Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan (R) said people should “exercise personal responsibility” to prevent further spread of the coronavirus while the state reopens.

But Democrats were quick to bash the decisions, suggesting that lives will be threatened.

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“Governor Abbott’s failure to listen to science and medical advice will cost Texans their lives,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said in a statement Tuesday. “The easiest thing everyone can do to slow the spread of COVID is to wear a mask and keep a social distance.”

Mississippi state Rep. Jeramey Anderson, D, denounced the decision to lift his state’s mask mandate, which he called “the main factor contributing to reduced COVID cases as more variants are discovered and many people have yet to be fully vaccinated.”

“We’ve been here before and it led us down a dark path,” Anderson added in a tweet Tuesday.

Some Texans also disputed whether the repeal would help businesses, arguing that it now puts the onus on the owners to enforce mask mandates, leaving them forced to face off with maskless customers.

“It puts a lot of businesses in a tough spot, I think,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told KSAT. “Basically you’re saying, ‘If you get infected, you die, that’s the way it goes. We got to open up.’ That’s not the way to do it. This is really ridiculous.”

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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