Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins on Friday revised the county’s mask mandate following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that most healthy Americans can safely visit most places without a mask.
Dallas County’s revised mask ordinance, which goes into effect Friday at 10 p.m., removes the requirement to wear a mask in all settings other than prisons, homeless shelters, residential care facilities. long-term and health care facilities, Jenkins said in a press release.
Communities at low and medium risk of COVID-19 don’t need to wear masks in most places, says one new set of CDC measures. The updated community levels are based on what’s happening in hospitals and less on positive test results.
The new system changes the appearance of the CDC risk map and places more than 70% of the US population in counties where the coronavirus poses a low or medium threat to hospitals. Residents of those counties can stop wearing masks, the agency said.
The federal agency still advises people, including schoolchildren, to wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. This is the situation in about 37% of US counties, where 28% of Americans live.
The new recommendations do not change the obligation to wear masks on public transport and inside airports, train stations and bus stations. CDC guidelines for other indoor spaces are non-binding, meaning cities and institutions, even in low-risk areas, can set their own rules. And the agency says people with symptoms of COVID-19 or who test positive should not stop wearing masks.
Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Denton counties all fall into the “medium” risk category, according to the CDC. Generally, this means that people in these counties can safely do without masks unless they are at high risk of serious illness.
Jenkins’ decision, based on advice from the county’s public health committee, will reverse most of the largely symbolic and controversial mask mandate put in place in August. The mask requirement applied to child care centers, public schools, businesses and county buildings and facilities.
“I said from the start that I will follow the science,” Jenkins said on Friday. “Recommendations coming from the CDC and our local public health committee are that we can have a substantial easing of masking here in North Texas.”
“Companies can still require masks if they wish,” Jenkins said. “It’s the same with ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service’.”
Jenkins’ response to the pandemic has been an issue during his campaign for re-election as a Dallas County judge. All of the challengers — he will face a Democrat in the March primary and two Republicans vying for a spot on the general election ballot — say they would have done things differently.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have fallen rapidly in recent weeks, following an omicron-fueled spike. Dallas County recorded a 14-day average of 633 new cases on February 24. That’s down from a 14-day average of 1,561 new cases on February 11.
Dallas County hospitalizations fell by more than half, from 695 on Feb. 10 to 344 on Feb. 24.
“The new indicators show improvement and a strong impact on some of the key things we are trying to prevent. We’re trying to prevent serious illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths, so it’s fine,” Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Dr. Philip Huang said Friday. “The more we can safely return to some sort of normality, I think we all want that.”
The legitimacy of the mask ordinance has been the subject of debate in Texas courts, with lawsuits between Jenkins, Gov. Greg Abbott and Dallas County Commissioner JJ Koch.
Koch sued Jenkins in August after he was kicked out of a commissioners’ court meeting for failing to wear a mask. Jenkins then sued Abbott for his mask mandate ban. Jenkins had removed all penalties for failing to comply with the order months ago when it was challenged in court.
In mid-February, Koch told a meeting that the county looks like “the emperor has no clothes” because residents without masks don’t follow him and other jurisdictions with case counts. much higher abandon their orders.
“We don’t enforce it; people don’t follow it,” Koch said at the time. “These mask mandates are dropped, and they still have higher numbers per 100,000. When do we lose our credibility?
The CDC shift
“Everyone is certainly welcome to wear a mask at all times if they feel safer wearing a mask,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Friday. “We want to make sure our hospitals are running well and people are not coming in with serious illness. …Anyone can go to the CDC website, find out the volume of disease in their community, and make that decision.
Some states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey, are at low to medium risk while others, such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Florida and Arizona, still have large areas of high concern.
Previous CDC transmission prevention guidelines for communities focused on two metrics — the rate of new COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive test results in the previous week.
Based on those measures, agency officials advised people to wear masks indoors in counties where the spread of the virus was deemed significant or high. As of this week, more than 3,000 of more than 3,200 counties nationwide — more than 95% — have been listed as having substantial or high transmission under these measures.
However, these guidelines have increasingly been ignored, with states, cities, counties and school districts across the United States announcing plans to drop mask mandates amid declining COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
With many Americans already taking off their masks, the CDC’s change won’t make much practical difference just yet, said Andrew Noymer, a professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine. But it will help when the next wave of infection — likely in the fall or winter — begins to threaten hospital capacity again, he said.
“There will be more waves of COVID. And so I think it makes sense to give people a break from masking,” Noymer said. “If we have continual masking commands, they could become a total joke by the time we really need them again.”
The CDC offers a color-coded map – with counties designated as orange, yellow or green – to help guide local authorities and residents. In green counties, local authorities can waive all indoor masking rules. Yellow means people at high risk of serious illness should be careful. Orange denotes places where the CDC suggests masking should be universal.
How a county will be designated green, yellow, or orange will depend on its rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions, the share of staffed hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, and the rate of new cases in the community.
Consideration of hospital data transformed some counties — like Boulder County, Colorado — from high risk to low.
Mask orders end
Mask requirements have already ended in most of the United States in recent weeks. On Friday, Los Angeles began allowing people to remove their masks indoors if vaccinated, and indoor mask mandates in Washington state and Oregon will be lifted in late March.
In a sign of political divisions over masks, the governor of Florida announced new recommendations called “Buck the CDC” on Thursday that discourage mask wearing.
In Pennsylvania, Acting Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter urged “patience and grace” for people who choose to continue to mask up in public, including those with weakened immune systems. She said she would continue to wear a mask because she was pregnant.
State health officials are generally happy with the new guidelines and “excited about how this is being rolled out,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia of the Association of State and Territory Health Officials.
“This is the path we have to take. I think it moves us forward with a new direction in the pandemic,” Plescia said. “But we always focus on safety. We always focus on preventing death and disease.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.