Masks are now only required in jails, homeless shelters, long-term care facilities and health care settings in Dallas County
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins revised the county’s mask mandate Friday following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that most healthy Americans can safely go most places without masks.
The revised Dallas County mask order, which goes into effect at 10 p.m. Friday, drops the requirement of wearing a mask in any settings other than jails, homeless shelters, long-term care facilities and health care settings, Jenkins said in a news release.
Communities with low and medium COVID-19 risk don’t need to wear masks in most places, according to a 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 look of the CDC’s risk map and puts more than 70% of the U.S. population in counties where the coronavirus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals. People in those counties can stop wearing masks, the agency said.
The federal agency is still advising people, including schoolchildren, to wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. That’s the situation in about 37% of U.S. counties, where 28% of Americans live.
The new recommendations do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transportation and indoors in airports, train stations and bus stations. The CDC guidelines for other indoor spaces aren’t binding, meaning cities and institutions even in areas of low risk may set their own rules. And the agency says people with COVID-19 symptoms or who test positive shouldn’t stop wearing masks.
Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Denton counties all fall within the “medium” risk category, according to the CDC. Generally, that means people in those counties can safely go without masks unless they are at high risk for severe illness.
“Businesses can still require masks if they so choose,” Jenkins said. “It’s the same thing with ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service.’”
Jenkins’ response to the pandemic has been an issue during his campaign for re-election as Dallas County judge. All of the challengers — he’ll face one Democrat in the March primary, and two Republicans are vying for a spot on the general election ballot — say they would have done things differently.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been dropping rapidly in the last few weeks, following an omicron-fueled spike. Dallas County saw a 14-day average of 633 new cases on Feb. 24. That’s down from a 14-day-average of 1,561 new cases on Feb. 11.
Hospitalizations in Dallas County dropped by more than half, from 695 on Feb. 10 to 344 on Feb. 24.
“The new indicators show improvement and strong impact on some of the key things we’re trying to prevent. We’re trying to prevent severe illness, hospitalizations and death, so this is all good,” Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, said Friday. “The more we can safely get back to some sort of normal, I think we all want that.”
The legitimacy of the mask order has been under debate in Texas courts, with battling suits between Jenkins, Gov. Greg Abbott and Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch.
Koch sued Jenkins in August after he was removed from a commissioners’ court meeting for not wearing a mask. Jenkins then sued Abbott over his mask mandate ban. Jenkins had removed any penalties for not following the order several months ago, when it was challenged in court.
In mid-February, Koch said in a meeting that the county looks like “the emperor has no clothes,” as maskless residents don’t follow it and other jurisdictions with far higher case counts abandon their orders.
“We aren’t enforcing it; the people aren’t following it,” Koch said at the time. “These mask mandates are being dropped, and they still have higher numbers per 100,000. When do we lose our credibility?”
The CDC’s shift
“Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing a mask,” the CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said Friday. “We want to make sure our hospitals are OK and people are not coming in with severe disease. … 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 wide areas at high levels of concern.
CDC’s previous transmission-prevention guidance to communities focused on two measures — the rate of new COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive test results over the previous week.
Based on those measures, agency officials advised people to wear masks indoors in counties where spread of the virus was deemed substantial or high. As of this week, more than 3,000 of the nation’s more than 3,200 counties — greater than 95% — were listed as having substantial or high transmission under those measures.
That guidance has increasingly been ignored, however, with states, cities, counties and school districts across the U.S. 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 shift won’t make much practical difference for now, said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine. But it will help when the next wave of infection — a likelihood in the fall or winter — starts threatening 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 orders, they might become a total joke by the time we really need them again.”
The CDC is offering a color-coded map — with counties designated as orange, yellow or green — to help guide local officials and residents. In green counties, local officials can drop any indoor masking rules. Yellow means people at high risk for severe disease should be cautious. Orange designates places where the CDC suggests masking should be universal.
How a county comes to 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.
Taking hospital data into account has turned some counties — such as Boulder County, Colo. — from high risk to low.
Mask orders are ending
Mask requirements already have ended in most of the U.S. in recent weeks. Los Angeles on Friday began allowing people to remove their masks while indoors if they are vaccinated, and indoor mask mandates in Washington state and Oregon will be lifted in late March.
In a sign of the political divisions over masks, Florida’s governor on Thursday announced new recommendations called “Buck the CDC” that discourage mask wearing.
In Pennsylvania, acting health secretary Keara Klinepeter urged “patience and grace” for people who choose to continue masking in public, including those with weakened immune systems. She said she’ll keep wearing a mask because she’s pregnant.
State health officials are generally pleased with the new guidance and “excited with how this is being rolled out,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
“This is the way we need to go. I think this is taking us forward with a new direction going on in the pandemic,” Plescia said. “But we’re still focusing on safety. We’re still focusing on preventing death and illness.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.