Beginning next Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott’s restrictions on business occupancies will vanish along with a mandate to wear a mask. The governor, who is arguing that Texans have “mastered the daily habits to avoid getting COVID,” says state-ordered restrictions are no longer necessary to control the spread of the coronavirus.
“Make no mistake, and to be clear, COVID has not, like, suddenly disappeared,” the governor, who is fully vaccinated, announced at a Lubbock Mexican restaurant. He was surrounded by a mostly maskless crowd that included civic boosters, Lubbock state Rep. Dustin Burrows, and Texas Tech University Chancellor Ted Mitchell. “COVID still exists in Texas and the United States and across the globe. But it is clear from the recoveries, from the vaccinations, from the reduced hospitalizations, and from the safe practices Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed.”
Only 9 percent of Texans are fully vaccinated. In North Texas, that number is 8 percent. The governor is relying in part on recoveries from COVID-19 to guide him, a metric that public health experts have warned is a flawed data point and is not even reported by Dallas County. He continues to speak about “antibody therapeutic drugs” that “keep (people) out of hospitals.” But, in effect, his ruling loosens public health efforts meant to mitigate the spread of the virus. It gives essential workers even less power if they’re called back into the office; current vaccine allotments do not take into account a person’s job, although it seems that public officials anticipate that in the near future.
On March 10, Abbott’s new executive order goes into effect. It lifts occupancy limits at all businesses. It no longer requires that Texans wear a face mask in public, only that they are “strongly encouraged to.” It asks Texans “to use good-faith efforts” in their vigilance against spreading the virus.
County judges can enact mitigation efforts only when the region’s hospital census exceeds 15 percent of COVID-19 patients for a full seven days. Those could include local mask ordinances, but county judges can only limit occupancy at businesses to 50 percent. The governor is barring any punishment for not following those rules, effectively numbing local orders.
County judges cannot restrict attendance at churches, schools, universities, or child-care providers.
Currently, only two trauma service areas in the state meet that barometer: El Paso’s and Laredo’s. Locally, that number is 11.2 percent over the past week. That represents hospitalizations at 19 counties throughout the region that are served by the North Central Texas Trauma Advisory Council. In a Zoom press conference after the governor’s announcement, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said he didn’t anticipate hospitalizations increasing that much throughout the region because the most vulnerable are being vaccinated.
“Barring just a complete disregard for safety on the part of our people we should be able to keep those hospital numbers under 15 percent,” Jenkins said.
The Biden administration considers Texas to be one of its three red states, based on positivity rates in the last week and confirmed admissions per 100 hospital beds. The weekly COVID-19 Community Profile Report says that the state’s positivity rate was 11.2 percent from Feb. 21 through Feb. 27. Dallas County remains a “sustained hot spot” for coronavirus infections; there were 14,374 new cases during the last week of February, with a positivity rate of 12.2 percent from the viral lab tests. Also on that list? Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Odessa, and Texarkana.
Nevertheless, Abbott is now leaving decisions largely to businesses, saying “they get to choose how to operate their business however they want to.”
“People and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate,” Abbott said.
Jenkins said county judges were unaware that the ruling was coming, outside of a vague tweet from the governor that he had a big announcement to make on Wednesday.
“This governor unlike the previous governor does not communicate with the county judges or mayors,” he said.
Like so much of the guidance from the state, local leaders have some questions about what the new order means for decisions coming from local governments. Jenkins believes local orders mandating that businesses require patrons and employees to wear masks will still stand, but he is planning to receive legal guidance regarding that matter. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley immediately rescinded a similar order there. One thing is clear: no municipality or county can penalize a business or an individual for failing to adhere to mitigation efforts.
“Nothing in this executive order precludes businesses or other establishments from requiring employees or customers to follow additional hygiene measures, including the wearing of a face covering,” the governor’s order reads.
Jenkins said he believed the governor’s decision was premature.
“The governor’s focused on what is legal,” he said. “I’m focused on what the doctors, the facts, and the science say will keep you safe.”