Texas lifted its mask mandate and capacity restrictions on restaurants and other businesses Wednesday, despite experts warning the "100 percent" relaxation of coronavirus curbs will exacerbate the spread of worrying variants.
The Lone Star State became the fifth to rescind its face covering order in a sign of increasing optimism about the pandemic in the world's hardest hit country, where the infection rate has fallen dramatically since January but still remains high in absolute terms.
"This must end," said Texas Governor Greg Abbott when he announced his plans to ease restrictions last week. "It is now time to open Texas 100 percent."
The move came as the immunization campaign was gathering momentum, with 62 million people so far receiving one or more doses -- about 19 percent of the adult population -- and Alaska became the first state to open up the shots to anyone aged 16 or over.
The White House on Wednesday announced plans to acquire 100 million more vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, giving the United States contingency capacity as it targets inoculating the adult population of 270 million people by May.
"We need maximum flexibility, there's always a chance that we'll encounter unexpected challenges, or there'll be a new need for a vaccination effort," said President Joe Biden, explaining the decision.
He added: "If we have a surplus, we're going to share it with the rest of the world," stressing the US had committed $4 billion to Covax, the global initiative to distribute vaccines to lower-income countries.
Biden said he would launch the next phase of the country's Covid response in a primetime address Thursday.
- Texans mixed on masks -
In downtown Houston, the biggest city of the nation's second most populous state, the overwhelming majority of people continued to wear their masks despite the new order.
Businessman Omar Abu-Shaaban called the move a politically motivated nod to the governor's anti-science Republican base.
"I don't think he had the health of the people in mind," he said.
But 22-year-old Kade Phillips told AFP he supported the decision.
"I think it's good for everyone to be able to make their own choice and what they choose for their body," he said.
Popular grocery chains had already said they would keep their mask orders in place, while cities can also keep the orders on municipal buildings and there are also no changes to the rule on federal property.
Support for mask measures is strongly divided along political lines, with people in more conservative and rural parts of the country more likely to view them as an affront to personal freedom.
- Celebrating too early? -
Some 525,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 but while cases have declined dramatically since the January 11 peak, the infection rate has been plateauing since the last week of February at around 60,000 new cases per day.
"The number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths still remain too high and are somber reminders that we must remain vigilant as we work to scale up our vaccination efforts across this country," said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky.
Peter Hotez, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, tweeted he was worried about a "perfect storm" coming to Texas with the lifting of the mask mandate, one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, rising cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first seen in Britain, an uptick in the test positivity rate and spring break.
In Maryland, which borders the capital Washington, Governor Larry Hogan announced that effective Friday the state would lift capacity limits on both outdoor and indoor dining, retail businesses and places of worship and allow both outdoor and indoor venues to begin operating at 50 percent capacity.
Hotez described the move as a "national race to the bottom" adding that while the US doesn't have enough vaccines yet, it will in two months' time.
"We don't have to needlessly lose American lives in the spring of 2021," he said.