AUSTIN, Texas (KTRK) -- Texas is lifting its mask mandate, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday, making it the largest state to end an order intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that has killed more than 42,000 Texans.
The decision comes as governors across the U.S. have been easing coronavirus restrictions, despite warnings from health experts that the pandemic is far from over. Like the rest of the country, Texas has seen the number of cases and deaths plunge. Hospitalizations are at the lowest levels since October, and the seven-day rolling average of positive tests has dropped to about 7,600 cases, down from more than 10,000 in mid-February.
Lifting the COVID-19 restrictions was a decision that Abbott told ABC13 was a product of the data that he's seen.
"The data's been remarkably effective," Abbott said. "Over the past week, we've administered more than 1.2 million [COVID-19] vaccinations. We are on schedule to make sure that by the time the order goes into effect, more than half of the senior population will have received a shot. In fact, by the time we get to the end of March every senior who wants a vaccine will be able to get one."
While the mask mandate has been lifted, when asked if he currently wears his mask and if he would continue wearing it, Abbott said yes. He also encouraged others to continue wearing their masks.
"[In] regard to the mask mandate, we are still urging people to continue to wear the mask, to continue to use the safe practices that they have mastered over the past year," he said. "Because Texans have mastered the safe strategies [inaudible] they know the right thing to do."
When asked about Texas ranking 48 in the number of people per capita that have been vaccinated, and about the health experts he conversed with on the decision Abbott said the numbers were wrong.
"Texas ranks number two in the nation for a total number of vaccinations," he said. "Texas ranks extremely high in vaccinations for [the] senior population."
The Republican governor has faced sharp criticism from his party over the mandate, which was imposed eight months ago, and other COVID-19 restrictions. It was only ever lightly enforced, even during the worst outbreaks of the pandemic.
The announcement reverberated across the state and to the White House, drawing criticism from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo to Pres. Joe Biden.
On Thursday, Judge Hidalgo also weighed in on Abbott's decision saying "we are smarter than this."
Hidalgo added that Abbott's decision conveys to the community that we are all good.
WATCH: Harris Co. Judge on lifting mandate: 'We're smarter than this'
"We're in the last inning, but we still gotta stick together," Hidalgo said. "This is the time for unity. It is not the time for false hope. It is not the time to give up."
She suggested that this decision could lead to more deaths, more hospitalizations that don't need to happen. Hidalgo expressed her biggest concern is the [COVID-19] numbers.
"The positivity rate in Harris County is sky high and it's climbing," she said. "The hospitalizations, 25% of the ICU is COVID-19 patients, which would be the starting point. Now with this reopening, we expect that to go back up."
On Wednesday, Biden was asked about Abbott's decision, something he says is a big mistake, adding, "masks make a difference."
"The last thing you need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything is fine, take off your mask," Biden said. "It's critical that we follow the science. Wear a mask and stay socially distanced."
WATCH: No more masks in Texas, but it comes with responsibility, Abbott says
Texas will also do away with limits on the number of diners that businesses can serve indoors, said Abbott. On Thursday, he mentioned that businesses will also be allowed to make their own decisions whether to open or not.
"There's not going to be any more shutdowns," Abbot said. "Now is the right time to allow businesses that want to open to be able to open. But also, if businesses don't feel safe opening, they should not be required to."
Only California and New York have reported more COVID-19 deaths than Texas.
Abbott imposed the statewide mask mandate in July during a deadly summer surge. But enforcement was spotty at best, and some sheriffs refused to police the restrictions at all. And as the pandemic dragged on, Abbott ruled out a return to tough COVID-19 rules, arguing that lockdowns do not work.
Politically, the restrictions elevated tensions between Abbott and his own party, with the head of the Texas GOP at one point leading a protest outside the governor's mansion. Meanwhile, mayors in Texas' biggest cities argued that Abbott wasn't doing enough.
Most of the country has lived under mask mandates during the pandemic, with at least 37 states requiring face coverings to some degree. But those orders are increasingly falling by the wayside: North Dakota, Montana and Iowa have also lifted mask orders in recent weeks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.