San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich blasted Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday for rescinding Texas' mask mandate and rolling back other Covid-19 restrictions, calling the decision "mystifying," "ridiculous" and "ignorant."
Speaking to reporters before San Antonio's 119-92 victory over the New York Knicks, Popovich said that the coronavirus pandemic is still raging and that Abbott's actions defy science.
"I'm worried about the people in our state," said Popovich, who has led the Spurs to five NBA championships. "That's a pretty mystifying decision considering the situation that we're all in."
Popovich, an Air Force Academy graduate and former intelligence officer, has the third most regular-season coaching victories in pro basketball history. He's also been one of the most outspoken figures in American sports on issues of racial justice and gender equality.
The Spurs coach said he's particularly concerned for business owners who want to keep customers and workers safe but will have no authority to tell patrons to wear masks.
"They're trying to do a good job of keeping everybody safe. Of course they want to open up. But getting rid of masks just seems ignorant to me," said Popovich, who will serve as Team USA's head basketball coach at the upcoming Olympics. "People that didn't want to wear masks in the first place, how do the businesses get them to wear masks? Well, now they don't have to. So now there will be more infections, one would think."
Abbott said Tuesday that his new executive order would rescind most of his previous Covid-19 executive orders and that all businesses would be allowed to open "100 percent" effective March 10.
A representative for Abbott could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
While rates of infections are generally coming down across the U.S., thousands of people are still dying. As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 14,000 people had died from Covid-19 over the previous seven days, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Texas still has one of the country's highest rates of infection, as more than 12.3 percent of coronavirus tests in the state came back positive over the last seven days, according to Johns Hopkins University data reported Wednesday. Public health officials have said local governments should use a 5 percent positivity rate as a benchmark to safely reopen.
"But when all of a sudden we act like it's over with, when all the science tells us the opposite, it's basically you're saying: 'You get inflected, you die, it's the way it goes. We got to open up,'" Popovich said. "That's not the way to do it. This is really ridiculous."
Popovich said he fears that getting rid of mask mandates could lead to a surge in cases similar to the deadly fall and winter spike, which was linked to holiday travel and lax adherence to safeguards.
"It's like we have to have instant gratification," Popovich said. "We already went through this once, and now we're going to do it again."
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CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Monday strongly cautioned against Abbott's rollbacks.
"Please hear me clearly," Walensky said. "At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained."
President Joe Biden echoed the concerns Tuesday, even as he announced that the U.S. will have enough Covid-19 vaccine doses for every adult by the end of May.
"This fight is far from over," Biden said. "Though we celebrate the news ... I urge all Americans: Please keep washing your hands, stay socially distanced, wear masks."