Wednesday, March 3, 2021 by Andrew Weber
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced he’s lifting statewide executive orders that limit occupancy for businesses and require Texans to wear masks in public spaces.
“Effective next Wednesday, all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100 percent,” Abbott said.
The governor said businesses can limit capacity or “implement additional safety protocols” if they wish and that counties can restrict occupancy if Covid-related hospitalization rates rise above 15 percent for seven straight days.
However, Abbott said, officials can’t “impose a penalty of any kind” on Texans for refusing to wear a mask or on businesses for failing to “mandate customers or employees wear face coverings.”
“Under no circumstance can a county judge put anybody in jail for not following Covid orders and no penalties can (be) imposed for failing to wear a face mask,” he said.
The governor said county judges may place caps on businesses if Covid hospitalizations rise above that 15 percent threshold, but that occupancy limits for businesses may not go below 50 percent.
“At this time … people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate,” he said.
While the state has seen a drop-off in new cases and deaths in recent weeks, Texas is still far behind in vaccination efforts. Texas is currently 53rd among all states, territories and protectorates in the share of vaccinated residents. Just over 12 percent of the overall population has received one dose of a vaccine, while 6 percent have received both doses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last week, the Department of State Health Services announced it had received its largest shipment of vaccines in 12 weeks and that the state has so far administered more than 5 million doses.
City and county leaders across Texas are wary Abbott’s order could lead to another spike in Covid cases and deaths, as was the case after he rescinded some limitations on businesses last October.
Just before Abbott’s announcement, Austin’s top doctor said removing the mask mandate could lead to a “substantial surge.”
“The danger that we face by reducing some of those restrictions – particularly, (a) masking mandate … certainly has the potential to initiate a surge at the moment when we have the potential to really drive the numbers into the ground,” Dr. Mark Escott, interim medical director for Austin Public Health, said.
Travis County Judge Andy Brown and Austin Mayor Steve Adler released a letter ahead of Abbott’s news conference urging him to continue the mandate.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins urged people to continue wearing masks in public, tweeting that Texans “should focus on what doctors, facts and science say is safe; not on what gov. says is legal.”
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo reiterated the call for Texans to continue wearing masks, saying “this is all on us now.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg also decried the governor’s decision, suggesting it wasn’t backed by science and that it was a “huge mistake.”
Austin-area Democratic state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez said the decision served as a “dangerous distraction” from criticism over the state’s response to last month’s crippling winter storm.
“I think it’s way premature. I think people are potentially going to die because of it,” he said. “I think we’re going to see surges in Covid cases, and as usual, low-income people and people of color are going to be suffering because of it.”
While the state’s new orders preempt city and county restrictions, mask mandates on federal property and on public transit are still in effect. Capital Metro says it will continue to follow federal guidelines and require passengers to wear masks.
Read the governor’s order.
Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.
This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.
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