By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) - While Texas and Mississippi announced complete rollbacks of their states' COVID-19 mitigation measures this week, several governors of other Republican states have made clear they are not abandoning their mask mandates despite political pressure.
The sharp decline of new daily COVID-19 cases and the rollout of vaccines in the United States have prompted state and local governments to ease business restrictions in recent weeks, with movie theaters set to open at limited capacity in New York and indoor dining resuming in San Francisco on Friday. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2WTOZDR)
However, the decline in cases plateaued last week with new infections rising in 29 out of 50 states compared with the prior week. Texas saw a 69% rise in cases in the week ended Feb. 28.
Few of the rollbacks have been as sweeping as in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday said the state's mask mandate would be lifted and most businesses could open at full capacity next week.
The move drew immediate criticism from some politicians and public health experts who have urged caution while the nation's vaccination program is still underway.
President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that decisions to end the required wearing of masks - such as those made by Texas and Mississippi - amounted to "Neanderthal thinking" given the ongoing deaths being caused by the pandemic.
"I think it's a big mistake. Look, I hope everybody's realized by now, these masks make a difference," he told reporters.
Public health experts agree face coverings are essential to slowing the spread of the virus, which has killed more than half a million Americans. But over the last year, resistance to public health measures in the United States, especially mask-wearing, has become politicized, with many Republican states enacting fewer and looser COVID-19 protocols than Democratic states.
In some Republican-led states, including Florida and South Dakota, there has never been a statewide mask mandate. In others, like Alabama and Ohio, mask mandates remain in effect.
Including the upcoming change in Texas, 34 states mandate that residents wear face masks in public, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
In Ohio, U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel on Wednesday called on Republican Governor Mike DeWine to follow Texas' lead and repeal the statewide mask order. The governor quickly rejected the idea.
"Ohio will be keeping its mask mandate to protect Ohioans who have yet to receive the vaccine. Vaccine supply is increasing, and there is light at the end of the tunnel, but the virus is still here and the pandemic is still ongoing today," a spokesman for DeWine told Reuters in an email.
Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia, a Republican, said on Wednesday he was not ready to ease any restrictions, including an indoor mask mandate.
"All businesses must continue to follow the safety guidelines," Justice said.
Abbott's executive order in Texas will lift all mask requirements statewide as of March 10 and forbid local authorities from penalizing residents who do not wear face coverings. It will remove all restrictions on businesses in counties without a high number of hospitalizations.
Local officials can still apply limits to businesses where hospitalizations remain high, according to the order, but are prohibited from mandating that they operate at less than 50% capacity.
As of Monday, Texas was seeing about 7,500 new cases per day on a seven-day average, according to Reuters data, and it was ranked 47th in the list of states that have vaccinated the highest percentage of their populations.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, on Tuesday also lifted his state's mask order and removed all restrictions on businesses.
But Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat in a majority Republican state, doubled down on his state's mask order even as it increased capacity to 75% at restaurants and retail businesses on Wednesday.
"Louisiana's mask mandate is still in place," Edwards tweeted. "As we vaccinate more and more people, masks are still our most effective tool in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives."
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Peter Szekely, Jarrett Renshaw and Carl O'Donnell; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker)