Alabama’s governor said on Thursday she was extending the state’s mask mandate for another month, heeding the advice of health experts and breaking with decisions by neighbouring Mississippi and Texas earlier this week to lift their requirements.
Alabama’s mandate, due to expire on Friday, will remain in effect until April 9, but no longer than that, Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, said.
“After that, it’ll be personal responsibility,” Ivey said at a briefing.
“Even when we lift the mask order,” she added, “I will continue to wear my mask while I’m around others and strongly urge my fellow citizens to use common sense and do the same,” Ivey said.
The contrasting moves on masks in the three southern states comes at a time when coronavirus infections, hospitalisations and deaths across the US had been falling but the decline has since stalled.
About 45,000 COVID-19 patients were being treated in US hospitals as of Wednesday night, compared with a peak of about 132,000 on January 6.
The lower number of hospitalisations in part reflects an acceleration of the drive to distribute the COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration. A third authorised vaccine from Johnson & Johnson began going into arms this week.
Even so, health authorities have stressed the need for caution, urging Americans to keep wearing masks, practise social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of the virus amid concerns that declines in new infections were plateauing with highly contagious newer virus variants widely circulating.
US President Joe Biden blasted states’ decisions to lift mask mandates, calling them “a big mistake” and adding, “the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking.”
The comment drew criticism from Republican leaders. White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday sought to explain Biden’s comments.
“I think the president, what everybody saw yesterday, was a reflection of his frustration and exasperation, Psaki said during a news conference, “which I think many American people have, that for almost a year now people across the country have sacrificed, at many times they haven’t had information they need from the federal government,” she said.
“They haven’t had access to a greater understanding of what the public health guidelines should look like,” she added, “and those include many many people in Mississippi and Texas, in Ohio, Florida, in every state across the country.”
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, said the decision to roll back measures is “inexplicable”.
“I understand the need to want to get back to normality, but you’re only going to set yourself back if you just completely push aside the public health guidelines,” Fauci said during an interview with CNN.
Since the pandemic reached the United States early last year, the country has recorded 28.7 million cases and more than 518,000 deaths, more than any other country in the world.
Texas, Mississippi and Alabama are near the bottom of the list of states in terms of administering vaccines, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based on the number of people per thousand who have gotten at least one dose. The governors of all three states are Republicans.
Medical officials welcomed Ivey’s decision after recommending an extension, arguing that easing restrictions before more people were vaccinated could reverse recent improvements. Alabama’s rolling seven-day average of daily cases has dropped from 3,000 in early January to below 1,000 and hospitalisations are at their lowest point since mid-2020.