Governor Tate Reeves after delivering his State of the State address on the steps of the State Capitol Tuesday afternoon. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Gov. Tate Reeves announced on Tuesday that he’s lifting all state-imposed mask mandates across Mississippi and removing COVID-19 related restrictions on business operations. 

“The governor’s office is getting out of the business of telling people what they can and cannot do,” Reeves said at a press conference.

The executive order, which will go into effect on March 3, replaces mask mandates and business restrictions with nonbinding recommendations that they continue to follow CDC guidelines. Reeves encouraged Mississippians to continue listening to the advice of public health officials like State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, who continues to recommend people wear masks in public and avoid social gatherings.

Shortly before Reeves’ announcement, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas announced similar moves and declared his state would be “100%” open by March 10. Both governors attributed their decisions to declining COVID hospitalizations and the rollout of vaccines. 

Under Reeves’ new order, restrictions will remain on venues hosting collegiate sporting events. The maximum capacity for indoor arenas has been doubled to 50%.

Restrictions will also remain in place for both public and private K-12 schools, though they have been weakened. Masks will still be required where social distancing is not possible. Seating for K-12 extracurricular activities is now set at 50% maximum capacity outdoors and 25% indoors. 

Mask mandates are currently in effect in 75 of Mississippi’s 82 counties. State health officials encourage widespread masking and credit the original statewide mandate issued by the governor on Aug. 4 with helping cases improve after a sharp summer spike. Reeves ended the statewide mask mandate on Sept. 30, but subsequently issued orders for individual counties.

Reeves said vaccines are a “new, better tool to combat COVID” than executive orders and expressed his distaste for signing them in the first place.

“The risk of overwhelming our hospitals with severe COVID cases is coming to a close. It gets less and less every single day we see more and more of our people, particularly those most vulnerable, vaccinated,” Reeves said. 

Reeves has drawn heavy criticism from multiple sides of the political spectrum over his handling of COVID-19 in Mississippi, with some decrying any COVID-related executive order as “tyrannical” and others criticizing his patchwork approach to mask mandates.

The Mississippi State Department of Health reported on Monday that 407,647 people in Mississippi — about 14% of the state’s population — have received at least their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. About 219,000 people have received both doses since the state began distributing vaccines in December.

Thousands of vaccination appointments are currently available on the MSDH website. First responders and employees of K-12 schools, preschools and daycares became eligible for vaccination on Monday.

“There will still be COVID in our communities, perhaps for a significant amount of time in our state as well as across the country,” Reeves said. “We will all need to assess for ourselves and our families to handle the risks and rewards of every and every activity we choose to pursue.”

January saw the most coronavirus-related deaths in a single month in Mississippi, with 1,240 confirmed. The state also set new single day records for new cases: 3,255 cases on Jan. 7, and 98 deaths on Jan. 12.

Additionally, the number of COVID-19 cases, COVID-related hospital admissions and clinic visits for COVID-19 like illnesses in Mississippi have been trending sharply downward in 2021.

MSDH reported 301 new COVID-19 cases and 44 coronavirus-related deaths on Tuesday. This brings Mississippi to a total of 295,295 coronavirus cases and 6,724 deaths since the pandemic began in March 2020.

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.