(Reuters) – Alabama’s governor on Thursday extended for another month an order mandating residents to wear face masks to protect against COVID-19, breaking with Mississippi and Texas as the issue again becomes the focus of political debate.
Alabama’s mask order, which had been due to expire on Friday, will now stay in effect until April 9, Republican Governor Kay Ivey told a news briefing.
“After that, it’ll be personal responsibility,” the 76-year-old governor said, adding she would wear her mask beyond that date. “Folks, we’re not there yet, but goodness knows we’re getting closer.”
Many U.S. states and major cities, seeing a sharp decline in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, have begun to ease unprecedented lockdowns and business closures imposed a year ago.
“While I’m convinced that a mask mandate has been the right thing to do, I also respect those who object, and believe that this was a step too far in government overreach,” Ivey said in setting April 9 as the final day that face protections will be mandatory.
Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to lift that state’s mask order and allow most businesses to reopen has been criticized by the administration of President Joe Biden.
“The last thing, the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, ‘In the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it.’ It still matters,” the Democratic president aid on Wednesday.
As of Thursday, 34 U.S. states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, still mandate that residents wear masks in public. Mississippi also lifted its face-covering order on Tuesday.
About 45,000 COVID-19 patients were being treated in U.S. hospitals as of Wednesday night, compared with a peak of about 132,000 on Jan. 6.
‘NOW IS NOT THE TIME’
The improving metric may be due in part to growing numbers of Americans who have been inoculated with one of two vaccines approved for emergency use late last year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A third authorized vaccine, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, began going into arms this week.
Despite the declining number of infections and hospitalizations, Biden and other leaders have urged Americans to keep wearing masks until the virus has been fully tamped down.
“Now is not the time to pull back,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official and Biden’s COVD-19 medical adviser, told MSNBC on Thursday.
“We were going in the right direction. Now is the time to keep the foot on the accelerator and not pull off,” he said, referring to the announcements in Texas and Mississippi.
Abbott on Thursday defended his decision, which takes effect next Wednesday, saying that residents of Texas were still encouraged to wear face coverings and take other precautions.
“Before now, there actually has not been any enforcement of the mask requirement,” Abbott told CNBC. “We continue to make wearing a mask a suggestion, and we urge all Texans to wear a mask when they are out.”
Texas, Mississippi and Alabama are near the bottom of the list of states in the number of vaccines administered per capita, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The three states are also near the top of the list in the percentage of people who test positive for COVID-19, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
California Governor Gavin Newsom said on Thursday the state would set aside 40% of its COVID-19 vaccine doses for the hardest-hit communities and establish a “vaccine equity metric,” to make sure that inoculations are conducted fairly.
Ivey also lifted indoor dining restrictions on restaurants and said summer camps could plan to reopen. She is also permitting senior centers to resume outdoor programs and increase their maximum number of visitors to two from one.
Among the improvements she cited was a 77% drop in COVID-19 hospitalizations from a Jan. 11 peak to the lowest level since last June.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Jeff Mason in Washington, Barbara Goldberg, Caroline Humer and Peter Szekely in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Peter Cooney)