Covid-19 Latest Updates: Texas Opens for Business, No Masks Required


Credit…Mark Felix for The New York Times

HOUSTON — Orders requiring masks and limiting the occupancy of restaurants and other businesses were lifted across Texas on Wednesday, a move that some medical experts said was premature while the state was still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.

Businesses are still allowed to require employees and customers to cover their faces and limit the number of people they allow inside. Cities can choose to keep limits in place in municipal facilities, and they remain on federal property.

When Gov. Greg Abbott announced the changes last week, he argued that he was pushing back against the economic devastation wrought by months of limitations on movement and commerce. In a news conference at a restaurant in Lubbock, Mr. Abbott, a Republican, noted the hindrances for workers and small businesses.

“This must end,” he said. “It is now time to open Texas 100 percent.”

Moments after Mr. Abbott’s announcement, patrons at Barflys in San Antonio removed the plexiglass dividers separating themselves from the bartenders.

At Barflys on Tuesday, an hour before the mask mandate was to expire, Amber Jowers, 32, was the bartender on duty. She welcomed the policy change. From now on, she will no longer wear a mask at work, she said.

“And we’re taking the sign down at midnight,” she added. “We have to get back to normal now.”

Barflys is a softly lit pub with a pool table, dartboard, and a slot machine. Metallica, Salt-N-Pepa, and the Texas Tornados play from the sound system.

On the smokey back patio, Sophie Bojorquez, 47, sat at a table with friends. She is a vaccinated nurse and a self-proclaimed anti-masker.

“I’m happy about the governor’s decision. The masks impeded the herd immunity we need. Now they want to vax so fast,” she said, shaking her head.

The patio bartender, Britt Harasmisz, 24, said that most of her customers didn’t wear a mask even before the mandate ended. And though her employer decided that Barflys would no longer require face covers, she said that she would continue to wear one while working.

“A lot of people have been vaccinated, Governor Abbott was vaccinated, but a lot of us on the front lines have not,” she said. “I’m going to wear a mask everywhere I go.”

The move to open Texas has faced intense resistance. The governor’s medical advisers have said that they were not involved in the decision. And some experts have raised concerns about intensifying the spread of the virus while the vaccination process is underway. Texas, which is averaging about 5,500 new cases a day, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Lina Hidalgo, the county judge in Harris County, which includes Houston, has argued that lifting the mask mandate means workers must be the ones to enforce rules in retail establishments and restaurants.

“We know better than to let our guard down simply because a level of government selected an arbitrary date to issue an all-clear,” Ms. Hidalgo, a Democrat and a persistent critic of Mr. Abbott, said in an op-ed column published this week by Time magazine. “I am working to clearly explain to the residents of my county that we will spare ourselves unnecessary death and suffering if we just stick with it for a little bit longer.”

Bert Rossel, 39, stopped in for a drink at Barflys on Tuesday evening. He said he had known the pub’s owner for many years and worked for him at one time. Mr. Rossel is in the insurance business nowadays. He said he believed that the pandemic had been hyped on social media as another distraction, or as he calls it, “the latest hot topic.”

“It’s survival of the fittest,” Mr. Rossel said. “My B.M.I. is higher than normal. Obese people are more susceptible to corona, but it’s been over a year. I would have gotten it already.”

As the evening advanced, the patrons at Barflys drank beer and downed shots, smoked and gossiped, enjoying each other’s company. No one paid attention when, at midnight, Ms. Jowers pulled the sign from the front door that read, “MASKS REQUIRED UPON ENTRY.”

Rick RojasJames Dobbins and

Covid-19 information pamphlets with a mask and disinfectant kit distributed in San Jose, Calif.
Credit…Ulysses Ortega for The New York Times

Black and Hispanic communities are confronting vaccine conspiracy theories, rumors and misleading news reports on social media.

The misinformation includes false claims that vaccines can alter DNA or don’t work, and efforts by states to reach out to Black and Hispanic residents have become the basis for new false narratives.

“What might look like, on the surface, as doctors prioritizing communities of color is being read by some people online as ‘Oh, those doctors want us to go first, to be the guinea pigs,’” said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracy theories.

Research conducted by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation in mid-February showed a striking disparity between racial groups receiving the vaccine in 34 states that reported the data.

State figures vary widely. In Texas, where people who identify as Hispanic make up 42 percent of the population, only 20 percent of the vaccinations had gone to that group. In Mississippi, Black people received 22 percent of vaccinations but make up 38 percent of the population. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the vaccination rate for Black Americans is half that of white people, and the gap for Hispanics is even larger.

The belief that doctors are interested in experimenting on certain communities has deep roots among some groups, Ms. Koltai said. Anti-vaccine activists have drawn on historical examples, including Nazi doctors who ran experiments in concentration camps, and the Baltimore hospital where, 70 years ago, cancer cells were collected from a Black mother of five without her consent.

An experiment conducted in 1943 on nearly 400 Black men in Tuskegee, Ala., is one of the most researched examples of medical mistreatment of the Black community. Over four decades, scientists observed the men, whom they knew were infected with syphilis, but didn’t offer treatments so that they could study the disease’s progression.

Researchers who study disinformation followed mentions of Tuskegee on social media over the last year. The final week of November, when the pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer announced promising results in their final studies on the safety of their Covid-19 vaccines, mentions of Tuskegee climbed to 7,000 a week.

President Biden attended vaccinations at a medical center for veterans in Washington on Monday.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

When President Biden pledged last week to amass enough shots by late May to inoculate every American adult, the pronouncement was greeted as a triumphant acceleration of a vaccination campaign that seemed only weeks earlier to be faltering.

But the announcement was also a triumph of another kind: public relations. Because Mr. Biden had tamped down expectations early, the quicker vaccine production timetable conjured an image of a White House running on all cylinders and leaving its predecessor’s efforts in the dust.

The Biden administration has taken two major steps that helped hasten vaccine production in the near term. His aides determined that by invoking the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, the federal government could help Pfizer obtain the heavy machinery it needed to expand its Kalamazoo, Mich., plant.

Crucially, Mr. Biden’s top aides drove another vaccine manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, to force a key subcontractor into round-the-clock operations so its vaccine could be bottled faster.

At the same time, Mr. Biden benefited hugely from the waves of vaccine production that the Trump administration had set in motion. To Trump administration aides, the new president’s crowing rings off-key.

“They criticize what we did, but they are using our playbook every step of the way,” said Paul Mango, the Trump administration’s deputy chief of staff for health policy and a senior official in the vaccine production effort then known as Operation Warp Speed. He said President Donald J. Trump’s team oversaw the construction or expansion of nearly two dozen plants involved in vaccine production and invoked the Defense Production Act 18 times to ensure those factories had sufficient supplies.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of production, the Biden White House has pursued a starkly different messaging campaign than Mr. Trump’s: underpromise, and then try to overdeliver. Mr. Trump routinely boasted of imminent achievements, including a vaccine rollout before Election Day, only to fall short.

Carefully calibrated goals “avoid losses,” said David Axelrod, the senior strategist for President Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012. The Biden administration, he added, “must have learned that lesson from watching Trump.”

Katie Rogers contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett and Susan Beachy contributed research.



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