Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Wednesday, March 10, 2021 by Andrew Weber, KUT

Texas is lifting its mask mandate and Covid restrictions on businesses. Here’s what that means.

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Texas is reopening 100 percent, ending the statewide mask mandate and lifting Covid-related restrictions on businesses.

Here’s a rundown of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order and what it means for local officials, schools and businesses.

What does the order do?

It pretty much does what you think it does – lifts statewide requirements to wear face coverings in public spaces and removes restrictions related to Covid-19 for businesses.

When does it go into effect?

March 10, at 12:01 a.m.

How will this affect businesses?

Businesses will be able to do whatever they want, essentially. Even Abbott said in his announcement, “People and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.”

So, if businesses want to completely reopen without a mask requirement or a cap on the number of customers, they can do that.

If businesses want to limit the number of customers allowed in their business and/or require customers and employees to wear masks, they can also do that.

So far, a whole mess of Austin businesses have suggested they’ll continue their policies of limiting capacity (at least indoors) and asking folks to wear a mask. The problem is, as KUT’s Ashley Lopez reports, businesses were really leaning on the statewide mask mandate to enforce their policies. If someone didn’t want to wear a mask, workers could point to the state’s rules.

They don’t have that level of cover now, though businesses can call police if they have a mask rule and customers refuse to wear one.

In light of Texas’ reopening, service-industry workers are calling on state officials to include them in priority groups for receiving Covid-19 vaccines.

What if there’s another surge?

Abbott’s reopening order allows local officials to reinstate occupancy limits if Covid hospitalizations surge but it restricts their ability to enforce those rules.

So, if hospitals within one of the state’s 22 trauma service areas see admissions related to Covid-19 go above 15 percent for a week straight, a county judge can cap occupancy in businesses at 50 percent.

But enforcing occupancy restrictions may prove difficult. Abbott said local officials can’t use the threat of jail. And while fines aren’t explicitly off the table, it’s unclear if the city will ticket people. Austin has previously relied on an education-based enforcement strategy, rather than simply handing out fines. Abbott’s order explicitly says cities and counties can’t enforce mask requirements.

So, how can cities and counties limit businesses?

Under the new order, local officials can’t limit “services” or impose “operational limitations,” but Austin area leaders say they can still impose mask mandates.

Mayor Steve Adler said Austin Public Health’s guidelines require mask wearing in public and that the city “will continue to enforce masking and all other public health mandates.”

Last July, Austin City Council approved an ordinance empowering APH to lay out a framework for a local mask mandate under the statewide order. That ordinance has since been renewed and is in effect until April 15.

Adler and Council Member Greg Casar have said the state’s Health and Safety Code allows APH to enforce a mask mandate, despite Abbott’s order preempting local rules.

Local governments have tried to go around the governor’s orders before. Austin, San Antonio and El Paso have tried to use curfews to curb the spread of Covid-19, to varying degrees of success.

Austin’s attempt would have limited the times when businesses (read: bars and restaurants) could operate over New Year’s, but it was immediately challenged by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The rule tried to limit in-person services at bars and restaurants between 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. that weekend. Businesses could offer to-go orders until close, but couldn’t offer in-person service during that time frame.

The Texas Supreme Court didn’t rule on the case’s merits, but it granted an injunction requested by the state, effectively killing the curfew hours before it was supposed to go into effect. After that, El Paso amended its curfew to apply only to gatherings, not business operations or services.

So, if Covid-19 hospitalizations were to surge in the next few weeks, Austin could put a cap on occupancy at 50 percent, but couldn’t necessarily enforce it and it couldn’t explicitly limit a business’ ability to serve folks in any way or limit hours of operation.

Still, if things go sideways and cases surge in the Austin area, Travis County Judge Andy Brown said he’d be open to exploring whether the county could limit alcohol sales.

What does this mean for schools?

Seemingly, not much.

School districts across the state said they’re going to continue requiring students and teachers to wear masks, and the Texas Education Agency said that was OK.

The agency still requires districts to offer in-person instruction as an option to retain state funding, but said school boards have the ability to determine their own policies on mask requirements.

A day after Abbott’s announcement, the Texas Department of State Health Services said teachers are eligible to receive a Covid vaccine, along with Texans over the age of 65 and those under 65 with certain preexisting conditions.

What else does this order do?

On top of all that, Abbott’s order allows for in-person jail visits to resume, allows elective surgeries to continue (if an area’s Covid hospitalization rate is below the threshold of “high”) and disbands the governor’s so-called strike force he mobilized to reopen the state.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says it’s allowing a single adult visitor per inmate two times a month. The Travis County Sheriff’s Office is still finalizing its plan on in-person visitations with Austin Public Health. It will then send that off to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for a final OK.

Abbott’s order also continues protections banning cities and counties from placing restrictions on religious services and child care businesses.

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.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Public Health

COVID-19

Gov. Greg Abbott

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