LUBBOCK, Texas - Texans awoke on Wednesday with a statewide mask mandate and occupancy restrictions in businesses lifted, a move some heralded as freedom and others as foolishness. On paper, Texas' rollback of coronavirus mitigation efforts is the most sweeping seen in the United States, along with a similar measure in Mississippi. In practice, vast swaths of Texas have rarely enforced mask or occupancy mandates in the past year, anyway. Several major retailers, grocery and restaurant chains in Texas said they would still require that masks be worn in their stores, which under Abbott's order relaxing restrictions is their right to do. Still, some expected to see standoffs between maskless customers and store employees on Wednesday. Texas was one of the first states to reopen its economy after the first wave of pandemic cases last May, and the nation's second most populous state led the way again last week when Governor Greg Abbott announced the relaxation amid declines in new daily COVID-19 cases and with the rollout of vaccines. As of Sunday, 18% of the U.S. population had received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control. County officials in regions where COVID patients take up 15% or more of hospital beds for seven consecutive days can enact new mask and occupancy restrictions, under Abbott's order, but no regions are currently in that situation. Austin's city council voted to still require masks - and dared state officials to sue the city. "In Austin, we're committed to saving lives," city council member Greg Casar wrote on Twitter. The Texas Education Agency's guidance for public schools is for the continued use of masks, while nursing homes in the state will not loosen restrictions. The Dallas Jewish Conservatives organization plans to host a party Wednesday evening with about 200 people. There will be a moment of silence for the pandemic's dead, refreshments for the guests and a bonfire into which folks will be encouraged to toss masks. "It's about freedom, liberty and personal responsibility," said Benjie Gershon, founder of the group. "The act of throwing a mask into the bonfire ... is in no way meant to belittle or undermine the tragic numbers of individuals who have fallen ill to COVID." REUTERS
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