After Abbott Ends Mask Mandate, Texan Officials And Restaurants Send Mixed Messages

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo railed against Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to end statewide coronavirus restrictions on Wednesday.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo railed against Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to end statewide coronavirus restrictions on Wednesday. Screenshot
Plenty of Texans were thinking of the number 100 on Wednesday, as in the percent capacity all Texas businesses are now allowed to operate at after Gov. Greg Abbott repealed his previously issued coronavirus safety restrictions — including, most notably, his statewide mask mandate — via executive fiat as of 12:01 a.m.

But the number Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is most concerned about is 9.8.

“That’s the percentage of people over 16 that have been fully vaccinated in Harris County,” Hidalgo said Wednesday. “That means right now, fewer than one in 10 people are fully vaccinated against the virus in our county.”

“In other words,” she continued, “we’re a long way from sparing ourselves the needless deaths and hospitalizations that we can avoid if we just make it through this vaccination period.”

click to enlarge Less than one in ten adults in Harris County are fully protected from COVID-19, a big reason why Hidalgo thinks it's premature to end the mask mandate. - SCREENSHOT
Less than one in ten adults in Harris County are fully protected from COVID-19, a big reason why Hidalgo thinks it's premature to end the mask mandate.

Thankfully, those local vaccination metrics should start ticking upward this Monday on account of expanded vaccine eligibility in Texas. Hours after Abbott's mask mandate went kaput, the Department of State Health Services gave Texans something of a consolation prize by announcing that Texas residents 50 and older will qualify to get vaccinated for COVID-19 starting on March 15.

The state health department said in a news release that people 50 and up will be the new 1C priority group, behind the currently approved groups in 1A (frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents) and 1B (Texans over 65 and anyone over 16 with a chronic health condition), as well as K-12 school staff and childcare workers.

"We've seen a remarkable decrease in the number of hospitalizations and deaths since people 65 and older started becoming fully vaccinated in January," said DSHS Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel chair Imelda Garcia on Wednesday. "Expanding to ages 50 to 64 will continue the state's priorities of protecting those at the greatest risk of severe outcomes and preserving the state's health care system."

Even given recent gains in vaccinations and decreasing coronavirus hospitalizations across the state, Hidalgo has lashed out against Abbott for his choice to end Texas business restrictions and the statewide mask requirement, moves she and health experts believe were made far too prematurely.

Given the state government’s abdication of pandemic safety enforcement, that burden now falls primarily to local businesses, and many Texans are particularly curious about how their favorite restaurants will handle this new post-mask mandate landscape.

According to Texas Restaurant Association spokeswoman Anna Tauzin, an informal TRA survey of 726 restaurant owners across the state found 73.1 percent will continue to require staff to wear masks even though Abbott’s mask mandate is no more, while 16.9 percent said they wouldn’t (9.9 percent were unsure).

As for requiring face masks for customers, far fewer Texas restaurants are willing to go that far: 43.5 percent of those same restaurant owners said they definitely wouldn’t require that patrons mask-up, compared to the 37.6 percent that said they would. Nearly 19 percent of operators surveyed said they hadn’t decided yet; Twelve owners skipped the customer mask question entirely.

Tauzin said the TRA hadn’t gotten any calls about mask-related confrontations at Texan restaurants as of Wednesday afternoon: “Everyone that we’ve spoken to today seems to be doing fine, knock on wood,” she said.

“The good thing is that restaurants know how to defuse a situation… I know that many restaurant owners are telling their frontline staff ‘If you sense a confrontation, or you’re in the middle of one, get a manager, get an owner.’” Tauzin said. “The last thing we want is for someone young and excited and eager in our industry to be turned away and turned off the industry by someone who’s just being a jerk.”

Hidalgo thanked local businesses who are still opting to try and enforce mask use among their customers. “I want to say to them, thank you. We see you. We appreciate you. We know you’ve been there from the beginning, leading and supporting our population, and as unfair as it is, you carrying this burden of keeping the community safe is an enormous public service,” she said.

The way local governments are handling the end of Abbott’s mask mandate varies pretty significantly depending on where in the state you look. On Tuesday night, Fort Bend County Judge KP George issued an executive order requiring mask-use for anyone who sets foot in a county building.

It’s a different story down on the beachfront: Galveston County Judge Mark Henry’s office has already ordered that all county employees return to working in-person in their regular offices as of Monday and declared that all county employees reporting to Commissioners Court can choose whether or not they want to wear a mask at work. While Galveston County elected officials still have the authority “to run their offices as they deem appropriate” regarding mask wearing, the Henry administration was clear that “they may not require a mask to enter any county building or open public area.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner reiterated Monday that all city of Houston facilities will still require visitors and staff to wear masks going forward, a policy that extends to venues like George R. Brown Convention Center operated by Houston First, the city’s non-profit convention arm.

Houston First’s communications director Carolyn Campbell said Tuesday that any proposed event at the GRB first has to be approved by the city, and that organizers are “expected to follow agreed upon, city-approved protocols” for both physical distancing and mask-use developed by the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, Dr. David Persse and the Houston Health Department during the event approval process.

Campbell said she hopes this approach will mean the only events that get approved will have organizers — and hopefully, attendees — who will gladly keep their masks on. That said, “If there is a problem and the organizers cannot resolve it,” she explained, “anyone not following protocols we do not expect the organizer to allow inside the GRB.”

“Houston First security will assist with enforcement if necessary,” Campbell continued, “but we have been working with the organizers from the very beginning, so we don’t expect this to become a problem after the governor’s COVID mandates are lifted.”

Over in Austin, Mayor Steve Adler has claimed that his city and county’s local health authority still has the power to implement public health-minded safety measures in the middle of a crisis. Based on that interpretation of state law, interim Austin-Travis County health authority Dr. Mark Escott has issued an order that mask-wearing will still be required in public throughout the county, a requirement that will be enforced with fines of up to $2,000 for non-compliance according to the Austin American-Statesman.

“The public health authority is responsible for the control of disease outbreak in Austin-Travis County, and will continue to utilize the rules he has set forth in helping to further mitigate the risk of spread,” said Adler.

The move is a clear come-and-take-it taunt toward the Abbott administration; The governor’s latest executive order states that while businesses can still require masks on their premises, and even though county judges can impose new restrictions if their region’s coronavirus hospitalizations stay above 15 percent for a week straight, no penalties can be issued for Texans who refuse to wear a mask.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton chimed in via Twitter Wednesday afternoon, referencing Austin's failed attempt to enforce a local curfew ahead of New Year's alongside a threat that his office will gladly sue both the city and Travis County if they don't give up the goat ASAP.

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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards