Texas and Mississippi on Tuesday issued separate executive orders to lift their states' mask mandates and give all businesses the green light to reopen at full capacity, casting off restrictions meant to curb the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement announcing the executive order, which will take effect March 10.
"Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared, but it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations, and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed," he said.
The announcements from the Republican governors come at a time when coronavirus cases and deaths have plateaued in the U.S., after hitting record numbers in January, and on the heels of good news for vaccination supply and distribution.
"Starting tomorrow, we are lifting all of our county mask mandates and businesses will be able to operate at full capacity without any state-imposed rules," Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves wrote on Twitter. "Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed. It is time!"
Over the weekend, a third vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson joined the U.S.'s stable of vaccines authorized for emergency use, as vaccination rates are expected to well exceed President Joe Biden's goal of 100 million shots in his first 100 days. Several states across the country have taken these signs as justification to accelerate their reopening plans.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced Monday that restaurants in the state will no longer have to adhere to capacity restrictions. Other states, including Montana and Iowa, have also lifted their mask mandates.
However, health officials warned against states taking too much action to loosen their restrictions or eliminate them altogether, as coronavirus variants continue to spread globally.
Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Monday that she was "deeply concerned" that the recent decline in cases had seemed to stall as daily cases are still around the 70,000 mark.
"Seventy thousand cases a day seemed good compared to where we were just a few months ago," she said at a press briefing. "But we cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths."
"Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained," she continued. "These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of Covid-19 in our communities, not when we are so close."
Abbott, who has served as governor of the nation's second-largest state for the past six years, has long harbored national ambitions. But mask mandates and other coronavirus restrictions have become less popular among GOP base voters as cases have plummeted, and Abbott could end up competing with smaller-state governors who have championed a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic.
This past weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., the crowd of activists cheered Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem - two governors staking out possible 2024 presidential lanes - for the more limited restrictions they have implemented over the past year.
DeSantis, whose state hosted the conference, described Florida as "an oasis of freedom" compared to other states during the pandemic.
But while Abbott has taken a backseat to those governors in Fox News Channel appearances, he has broader political experience. Outside of former President Donald Trump, he's the Republican Party's strongest fundraiser: He had $38 million in cash on hand for his bid for a third term next year as of the end of 2020.
A former state attorney general for 12 years before ascending to the governorship, Abbott has been a statewide elected official in populous Texas since 2002 - compared to DeSantis and Noem, who had brief, less remarkable careers in Congress before winning elections for governor in 2018.
Steven Shepard contributed to this report.