Two US states are lifting compulsory coronavirus restrictions, but are they in a position to do so?
The governors of the US states of Texas and Mississippi have lifted all compulsory Covid restrictions, despite public health concerns about relaxing measures too soon.
President Joe Biden has called the move “a big mistake”.
So are these states in a good position to be lifting restrictions?
Individual US states are in charge of their own public health policy, and despite President Biden urging caution, some are now lifting restrictions.
The president has emphasised the use of face coverings and social distancing until the vaccine rollout can change the nature of the virus.
More than 30 states still have a mask mandate in place, which generally requires people to wear a face covering inside private businesses and public buildings.
Most states also have limits on the number of people who can enter businesses such as shops, bars and restaurants.
But in Texas from 10 March, the state-wide mask mandate and social distancing requirements are no longer in place, and all businesses are able to open at 100% capacity.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said “personal vigilance to follow the safe standards is still needed to contain Covid” – but there will be no laws requiring people follow these standards.
Some cities in Texas have already announced local mask mandates, but these will be harder to enforce.
Governor Abbott added that local officials “may use Covid-mitigation strategies in their county” such as limiting business capacity if regional hospital admissions rise above 15% of the capacity for seven straight days.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves also lifted the state’s mask requirement last week, and has now allowed businesses to open at full capacity.
Both governors have pointed to plummeting cases and hospital admissions in recent weeks as reasons for reopening.
Covid rates had been dropping in both states since the middle of January, a downward trend in line with the national picture.
However, this has begun to level off and even rise slightly in recent weeks, with health experts warning the rapid relaxation of restrictions risks a further rise in cases.
Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says: “These states’ lifting of measures like mask mandates are quite premature.”
“Though the US case numbers have fallen considerably, our daily incidence is still dangerously high.”
Texas has recorded the second-highest number of cases and deaths across the US during the last week.
New York was the only state to record more cases and California more deaths. Both of these states are maintaining restrictions, and mask wearing is enforced.
Texas does have a bigger population than most states, but even in per capita terms it has one of the highest case rates – with about 143 confirmed cases per 100,000 people over the last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Texas is recording about as many cases per day as the UK on average, despite having a population less than half the size.
Mississippi has recorded fewer cases per capita than Texas and the majority of other states in the last week, with about 91 cases reported per 100,000 people.
Hospital admissions have continued to fall in both states, but there tends to be a lag of a couple of weeks between infections and people entering hospital.
There are hopes that fewer people who catch Covid will end up in hospital now vaccines are being rolled out, with the most vulnerable being protected.
The governors of Texas and Mississippi have highlighted their states’ successful vaccine rollouts as a key factor in enabling them to fully reopen.
But vaccination rates in these states are both below the national average, with only about 8% and 9% of their populations respectively being fully vaccinated (receiving two doses).
Health experts warn this still leaves many people vulnerable to serious illness and death.
Dr Vanessa Kerry, associate professor of medicine at Harvard University, said: “We need to achieve a certain level of vaccination – 70% of the population – to adequately disrupt transmission and allow for a return toward normal.”
Kate Grabowksi, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, said: “Given that the Biden administration anticipates having enough vaccine for the entire US adult population by May, the lifting of restrictions feels like quitting the marathon at mile 25.”
The emergence of more contagious Covid variants is also a worry, with the CDC warning they pose a real threat to the country’s progress.
Dr Kerry added: “This decision feels politically motivated and not public health driven.”
The Republican governors made clear that the economy was a major consideration, insisting that with cases dropping and vaccines rolling out, now was the time to restore livelihoods and reopen 100%.