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Editorial: Don’t ditch masks yet. We’re still in a pandemic.

By American-Statesman Editorial Board

All that was missing was the Mission Accomplished banner. But Gov. Greg Abbott didn't accomplish anything Tuesday so much as he demonstrated once more his failure to lead in the state's ongoing fight against the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

Abbott touted declining hospitalizations, increasing immunizations and Texans having "mastered the daily habits to avoid getting COVID,” as he declared that Texas is ready to fully reopen all businesses and end the statewide mask mandate. The governor failed to provide what the moment demands: A continued appeal to Texans to protect each other's lives.

A customer exits a store with a mask required sign displayed, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Didn’t he learn his lesson last year, after reopening Texas too soon the first time? We remember: Cases spiked. Texans suffered. Some of them died.

Last summer’s COVID-19 surge prompted Abbott to adopt the mask mandate, a widely praised public health measure that made it safer for people to go to work, visit businesses and send children back to school. Abbott’s decision now to repeal the mandate, to substitute “personal responsibility” for proven measures in a public health emergency, is shameful — especially since the timing suggests an attempt to change the subject from Texas’ deadly power grid debacle.

We wish COVID-19 were a distant memory. But it remains a live crisis. The director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, this week urged states to keep their coronavirus restrictions in place, noting that with new variants of the virus now circulating, “we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained.”

We wish the coronavirus vaccine were more widely available. But so far, less than 7% of Texans have been fully vaccinated — a far cry from the 65% to 85% likely needed to achieve herd immunity. It may be the summer before we get there.

We wish that face masks, the best tool available to everyone to prevent COVID-19 spread, had not become a subject of scorn in Abbott’s party. But just days ago, as Texas’ death toll from the coronavirus neared 43,000, Sen. Ted Cruz in his speech at CPAC mocked those who would have us “wear masks for the next 300 years.”

Abbott hasn’t shown disdain toward masks; indeed, on previous occasions, he has urged people to wear them. His speech Tuesday, though, was thick with talk of “personal responsibility,” of letting residents and businesses set their own course. Abbott failed to speak to our common cause in ending the coronavirus pandemic.

Texans may notice little difference from other COVID-19 restrictions being lifted, as many businesses were already operating at 75% capacity. But we will all notice a big change — and face greater risks — if Texans stop wearing masks in public places. The state may no longer require it, but good sense and common decency do: Keep wearing masks until the pandemic passes.