Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued an executive order Thursday requiring all Texans to wear a face covering in public in counties with 20 or more positive coronavirus cases.

Why it matters: It's a dramatic reversal by the Republican governor that underscores the severity of the outbreak in Texas, which set a single-day record on Wednesday with more than 8,000 confirmed new cases. On June 3, Abbott issued an executive order banning local governments from imposing fines on people who don't wear masks in public.

  • Abbott also issued a proclamation on Thursday allowing mayors and county judges to restrict outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people.

But, but, but... Exceptions for masks while in public include attending church, consuming food or drink while seated at a restaurant, swimming, voting or giving a speech to a public audience.

The big picture: Texas has reported more than 175,000 total confirmed cases and 2,500 deaths, but is one of a number of states across the Sunbelt that has seen a huge surge in infections in recent weeks.

  • Texas was one of the first states to reopen after its initial coronavirus lockdown, with Abbott allowing the state's stay-at-home order to expire on April 30.
  • As cases began to climb, Abbott urged Texans last week to stay home to fight the "rampant" spread of the coronavirus, warning that it was spreading at an "unacceptable rate."
  • He then took the dramatic step of pausing Texas' reopening plan as the virus threatened to overwhelm hospitals. Abbott admitted in a radio interview last week: "If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars."

What he's saying:

"Wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19. We have the ability to keep businesses open and move our economy forward so that Texans can continue to earn a paycheck, but it requires each of us to do our part to protect one another — and that means wearing a face covering in public spaces."
— Gov. Abbott

Between the lines: Abbott's reversal comes as top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have urged Americans to wear masks to protect themselves and others, dismissing the partisan divide that has defined the issue since the early days of the pandemic.

  • President Trump said in an interview on Wednesday that he's "all for masks," but maintained that he doesn't think it should be mandatory.
  • On Thursday, the leaders of the nation's top business organizations wrote an open letter urging the White House to work with governors to develop mandatory mask guidelines, after a Goldman Sachs study showed universal mask-wearing could "potentially substitute for lockdowns that would otherwise subtract nearly 5% from GDP."

Go deeper

Updated Sep 20, 2020 - Health

7 states set single-day coronavirus case records last week

Data: Compiled by Axios; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Seven states set new highs last week for coronavirus infections recorded in a single day, according to the COVID Tracking Project and state health departments. Wisconsin and Nebraska surpassed records set the previous week.

Why it matters: Problem spots are sticking in the Midwest, although the U.S. is moving in the right direction overall after massive infection spikes this summer.

Updated 10 mins ago - Health

World coronavirus updates

Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

A coalition of 156 countries agreed Monday to a "landmark" agreement aimed at the fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines around the globe, the World Health Organization announced Monday.

The big picture: 64 higher-income countries, including European Union members, are among the signatories to the deal, known as "COVAX." The U.S. is not participating in the scheme.

Sep 20, 2020 - Health

Trump's health secretary asserts control over all new rules

HHS Secretary Alex Azar and President Donald Trump. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Heath and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar wrote a memo this week giving him authority over all new rules and banning any of the health agencies, including the FDA, from signing any new rules "regarding the nation’s foods, medicines, medical devices and other products," the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: The story further underscores reporting that health and scientific agencies are undergoing a deep politicization as the Trump administration races to develop a coronavirus vaccine, as Axios' Caitlin Owens has reported. Peter Lurie, a former associate commissioner of the FDA, told the Times that the Azar memo amounted to a "power grab."

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