Texas bars mask mandates for schools, defying latest CDC guidance

May 18 (Reuters) - Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday ordered all public school districts in his state to lift mask-wearing requirements next month, contradicting the latest student-safety COVID-19 guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Abbott's executive order also bars other local government entities in the state from continuing to require face coverings beginning on Friday, echoing a similar move earlier this month by fellow Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida.

Abbott said Texas was making strides against the COVID-19 pandemic through vaccinations, antibody therapeutics and voluntary health-safety practices, leaving government mask requirements no longer necessary.

"We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans' liberty to choose whether or not they mask up," he said in a statement announcing the executive order.

Abbott and many other Republican politicians have cast mask mandates as an imposition on personal freedoms, though they grudgingly required face coverings at the height of the pandemic as hospitalizations and deaths surged out of control.

Texas lifted its state-imposed mask mandate 10 weeks ago when the crisis began to ebb. The state then sued officials in Austin, the Texas capital, for refusing to go along with the lifting of those restrictions.

Tuesday's order marked an escalation in Abbott's determination to force other local governments to align with his no-mask policy at the state level.

It also puts Texas at odds with the latest CDC guidance recommending students in schools across the United States wear masks for the 2020-2021 academic year because not all will have been inoculated against the coronavirus when in-classroom instruction resumes. read more

The action in Texas comes as states across the country have moved to end or relax compulsory mask-wearing in most other public places, in accordance with CDC guidelines in recent weeks. Those recommendations reflect a steady decline in coronavirus infections, hospital admissions and mortality as the U.S. vaccination campaign gains momentum.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday his state will drop face mask requirements in most public spaces for vaccinated individuals, while fellow Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom of California said he would keep his mask order in place for another month. read more

But most governors who have discarded mask mandates at the state level have allowed local governments, school districts and businesses to exercise discretion in choosing when and how to ease their own requirements.

Texas, the second-most populous state in the nation, now becomes the most aggressive in steering away from masks altogether.

Beginning Friday, local governments or officials attempting to impose a mask mandate or other restriction in defiance of Abbott's latest executive order would be subject to fines of up to $1,000.

Public school districts have been given more time to comply, but after June 4, "no student, teacher, parent or other staff member of visitor can be required to wear a mask while on campus," his announcement said.

Regardless of what government mandates are in place, a new Ipsos poll conducted for Reuters over the weekend shows more than half of Americans expressing a reluctance to quickly return to normal pre-pandemic behavior.

Of those surveyed, just 17% said they intended to swiftly get back to their previous routines. Another 28% said they already were doing so, a figure that included 42% of Republicans polled.

Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Karishma Singh

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