In January 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that Covid-19 variants would become dominant in the United States by the spring. At the time, the more contagious B117 variant, which was initially identified in the United Kingdom, had already been found in the U.S. But in the early months of 2021, multiple states chose to roll back pandemic-related restrictions despite these warnings.
By mid-February, CDC data showed that more than 1,500 cases of coronavirus variants had been reported in the U.S., with the B117 strain present in 41 states and Washington, D.C. That same month, health officials in Michigan reported 88 cases of the B117 strain in a state prison. Researchers also identified a homegrown coronavirus strain in California and another one in New York, and health officials made it clear that the country was in a race between variants and vaccinations.
Despite the evolving virus, many states still chose to end important health measures. On March 2, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ended the state’s mask mandate, a decision made without the input of all of his medical advisers. Under the new rule, businesses would have the option to require masks, but mask-wearing in public was no longer obligatory. Mississippi, Iowa, Montana, and North Dakota also dropped mask mandates to join the 11 states that never required masks in public. Other states eased restrictions that had ensured social distancing: Arkansas and Massachusetts ended indoor dining capacity limits, while Maryland, Connecticut, West Virginia and Arizona ended indoor capacity limits on most businesses, including gyms and restaurants.
Amid the changes, state legislatures in Georgia, Missouri, Idaho, and Texas advanced laws that prevented workers or customers from pressing lawsuits against businesses if they contracted Covid-19. Multiple large events were held in Florida, despite the state reporting high numbers of cases of the B117 variant. Thousands of maskless fans flooded Tampa during Super Bowl weekend, and at the end of February, the Conservative Political Action Conference was held in Orlando.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus continued to spread. At the end of March, the U.S. saw a 16 percent increase in new Covid-19 cases, and Michigan in particular saw hospitalizations spike among younger populations. By the beginning of April, the CDC announced that the B117 variant had become the dominant Covid-19 strain in the U.S.
American Oversight is investigating the disparate state responses to the evolving virus. We’ve sent public records requests to Missouri, Florida, Georgia, and Idaho asking for communications related to legislation protecting businesses. We’ve also been investigating Abbott’s decision to end coronavirus protections in Texas, and have sent requests to the Texas governor’s office and the state’s department of health for communications and impact analyses regarding the repeal of mask mandates.