As alluded last week, indoor capacity restrictions for Texas restaurants, bars, and businesses, and statewide mask mandates have been lifted by Gov. Greg Abbott, starting Wednesday, March 10. The governor made the announcement during an afternoon press conference held in Lubbock at Mexican restaurant, Montelongo’s, on Tuesday, March 2.
“It is now time to open Texas 100 percent,” Abbott said. This means that every Texas business — including restaurants and bars — will be able to operate with full indoor capacities next Wednesday. Because the order cancels previous orders, there are no social distancing requirements or masking requirements, though the order does “strongly” encourage people to wear facial coverings.
Abbott did note that businesses can still implement whatever rules they so choose to, be it capacity limits and/or facial mask requirements for diners and employees. However, county judges are not allowed to jail anyone who doesn’t follow COVID-19 measures or issue penalties to those who don’t wear face masks.
Despite the rules change, an executive order remains in place requiring indoor capacity be limited to 50 percent of normal levels in regions where more than 15 percent of hospitalizations were COVID-related for seven days straight. (This happened in Travis County during most of January).
Prior to this announcement, Texas restaurants were allowed to operate at 75 percent of normal indoor capacity and full outdoor capacity while following social distancing measures. Masks were required for diners except when seated at a table and while eating and drinking.
Just ahead of the conference, Austin Mayor Steve Adler urged the governor to keep the mask mandate active. “We believe it would be premature and harmful to do anything to lose the widespread adoption of this preventative measure,” he writes in the letter, adding that the mandate “allowed many small businesses to remain open.”
It’s unclear what this new state order means for for Austin and Travis County’s local mask requirements, which had been in place before Gov. Abbott reluctantly issued the statewide mask mandate back on July 2, 2020, just as cases were surging last summer. Austin and Travis County’s current mask orders now run through Wednesday, April 21.
Likewise, Austin is also currently in its stage four of its risk-based guidelines, which asks all businesses — including restaurants — to operate with 25 to 50 percent indoor capacities. Local orders cannot supercede state orders, as seen through the state of Texas’s block of Travis County’s attempt to implement a curfew for restaurants and bars over New Year’s weekend earlier this year.
Only 6.5 percent of Texas’s population has been vaccinated by the end of February through a process that has been confusing and frustrating for citizens. The state is set to receive an increased amount of doses going forward and there’s a possibility the vaccinations could occur more quickly with the approval of a third vaccine, a single-dose option from Johnson & Johnson.
Currently in Texas, only health care workers, people in long-term care facilities, people 65 years and older, and people who are 16 years and older with specific high-risk conditions are eligible for the vaccine. Restaurant workers have not been allowed to receive the vaccine yet, unlike some other states and counties in the country.
At the same time, there are multiple new strains of COVID-19 that have appeared in the country — including Houston — that are more contagious. It’s still unclear if the vaccines are effective against these new strains, as there isn’t enough data right now. People who have been vaccinated are still asked to follow social distancing rules by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Travis County’s positivity rate is 9.5 percent as of the last week of February. Since late February, daily cases in the area have hovered in the 200 to 300 range, which have greatly dropped since the spikes of cases in January.
Right now, if COVID-related hospitalizations continue to decline in Austin and Travis County, Austin Public Health might de-escalate into stage three this week. That’s according to Dr. Mark Escott, the interim medical director and health authority for Austin and Travis County, who spoke to KUT.
Gov. Abbott’s new order also comes just after Texas endured a debilitating winter storm crisis where the state power grid failed and millions were without power during below-freezing temperatures due to forced blackouts, and many died. And there are still many apartment complexes without working water still.
Last spring and summer, Gov. Abbott made it difficult for local cities and counties to issue their own mask mandates. Eventually, local municipalities issued their own requirements ahead of the statewide order.
Update, 2:25 p.m.: This article, originally published at 2:03 p.m., has been updated to include details from the executive order.