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As Texas casts off shackles of COVID-19, lessons of 2020 still loom large for many

LLANO, Texas — In this weather-beaten Texas town, where frayed tributes to Donald Trump are still prominent among the cactus and yucca plants along the two-lane highway, there are two kinds of shopkeepers.

LLANO, Texas — In this weather-beaten Texas town, where frayed tributes to Donald Trump are still prominent among the cactus and yucca plants along the two-lane highway, there are two kinds of shopkeepers. 

One type gets visibly nervous when talk turns to how locals in this part of Texas Hill Country feel about the social graces of the COVID-19 pandemic — rules the state fully abandoned Wednesday. 

 The other is Buddy Howell. 

"Wearing a mask is like trying to catch mosquitoes with a fishing net," said Howell, the owner of Eagle Outfitters, an eclectic sporting supply shop brimming with ammo, hunting knives and tactical gear. 

Almost a year to the day since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, Gov. Greg Abbott ended the statewide mask mandate and allowed businesses to open at full capacity. 

In parts of the United States like rural Texas, where personal freedoms are sacrosanct and regulation is a dirty word, the move promises to highlight the country's cultural and political divide.  

"Gov. Abbott is not saying, 'Everybody take your mask off' — no, he's not saying that at all," said Howell, whose store includes an entire section of shelves teeming with Trump merchandise. 

"He's leaving it up to businesses like mine as to whether or not we're going to have masks in our stores, restaurants, theatres, or anywhere we go. We're smart enough to choose for ourselves."

Like edgy saloon-keepers in an old Sergio Leone western, several of Howell's fellow business owners nervously waved off questions about masks and how their clientele feels about them. 

"This is small-town Texas," said one, who refused to give her name. "Nobody around here likes wearing a mask. But it's not a political issue, it's a health issue." 

They described having to mediate disputes in their establishments in recent months between patrons who refused to wear face coverings and others who demanded that they put masks on.

"We've had folks get very, very angry on both sides — 'They're not wearing a mask, but they need one,' 'You can't make me wear a mask, that's my liberty,'" said one chain-store manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to his employer's no-comment policy. 

"We've heard both. So as a company, we decided we didn't want to be the enforcer."

Now, without a state-imposed rule requiring a mask, such confrontations are going to be even harder to deal with for businesses that have no plans to end their own mask-wearing requirements. 

"This is only going to make it worse. We'll just have to grin and bear it." 

More than half the seniors in Texas have received a dose of COVID-19 vaccine, including more than 220,000 people on Wednesday alone, Abbott said on his Twitter feed. 

The percentage of people who test positive for the illness has declined for 15 straight days, he added. 

But as states continue to declare ends to their restrictions — Mississippi has already done so, while Maryland will end capacity limits on businesses as of Friday — public health officials are nervous.

In Austin, just 90 minutes southeast of Llano, a fight was already brewing between the state and the city, where Mayor Steve Adler vowed to keep a mask requirement in place and Texas promised to fight it. 

"We’re looking at every avenue available to stop them," Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted.  

Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat, likened Abbott's order to a death sentence for her constituents in a speech Tuesday to the House of Representatives. 

The state has consistently lagged behind the rest of the country in protecting its citizens and is now home to all five of the most prominent, extra-contagious variants of COVID-19, she said. 

"They have 'long-haulers' in Texas — people who have continued to have COVID-19," Jackson Lee said. 

"Let's ignore wrongheaded advice and do what is right to save lives." 

Still, it's hard to blame Americans for seeing the bright side after the year they've had. 

The COVID-19 death toll passed 540,000 Wednesday, with the total number of cases closing in on 30 million, as Congress finally passed Biden's $1.9-trillion relief package. 

Vaccinations are moving along at a brisk pace, thanks to a White House-engineered partnership between rivals Johnson & Johnson and Merck — so much so that Biden is musing aloud about what the U.S. will do if it finds itself with a surplus of doses. 

"If we have a surplus, we will share it with the rest of the world," he said Wednesday as he offered a brief preview of Thursday's prime-time address to the nation, his first as president. 

His message to Americans, in a nutshell: bear down. 

"I'm going to talk about what comes next. I'm going to launch the next phase of the COVID response and explain what we will do as a government and what we will ask of the American people," Biden said. 

"There is light at the end of this dark tunnel of this past year. We cannot let our guard down now or assume that a victory is inevitable."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2021. 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press