AUSTIN (KXAN) — Gov. Greg Abbott’s new executive order rescinding a statewide mask mandate and allowing businesses to open at 100% capacity took effect Wednesday.
“It’s time to reopen Texas 100%,” Abbott said during a news conference March 2 in Lubbock. “Everybody who wants to work should have that opportunity. Every business that wants to be open, should be open.”
How things change today — and could change again if COVID-19 cases spike
As of Wednesday, businesses can essentially operate — if they choose — just like they did before the pandemic. That means they don’t have to require customers wear masks, don’t have to limit capacity, and don’t have to keep people apart for social distancing.
It will likely mean a patchwork of rules at businesses across the state. Some may still enforce a mask and keep customers at a distance. Then a competing business next door might take the opposite approach and pack people in shoulder to shoulder with no masks. It’s up to business owners to decide.
But if COVID-19 cases spike, county judges could retake control.
Specifically, if COVID-19 hospitalizations rise above 15% of bed capacity for seven straight days in any of the state’s 22 hospital regions, county judges could enact their own rules — within limits. No matter what happens with hospitalizations, businesses will be able to operate at 50% capacity at a minimum.
Can I be jailed if I refuse to wear a mask?
Gov. Abbott’s executive order says no one will ever be jailed in Texas for refusing to follow a county judge’s recommendations.
But that doesn’t give anyone the right to defy a local business.
If you’re in a private business, you must follow their rules. If they tell you to wear a mask and you don’t, you might be asked to leave. If you’re asked to leave and don’t, you could still be arrested for trespassing.
Austin says, not so fast, governor
While some have welcomed the end of the mask mandate, many large cities have not.
The City of Austin will keep masking orders in place until at least April 15, and despite Abbott’s order saying no one can be fined or jailed for not following a local mask order, Austin city officials say it’s a public health mandate they can enforce.
In a briefing with Travis County Commissioners and Austin City Council members Tuesday, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott explained how enforcement would work.
“If an individual enters a business that requires a mask and is not wearing a mask, and they are asked to leave and they do not, they’re trespassing,” Escott said. “That’s a crime they can be arrested for. They can’t be arrested for not wearing a mask. They can be arrested for trespassing. If that trespassing involves violence or threats, it’s going to increase the level of the crime that’s involved.”
Austin did not say what would happen if the business chose not to require people to wear masks.
Williamson County ending mask mandate even in county buildings
Williamson County, however, will not require masks in government buildings and will open its facilities to full capacity. County Judge Bill Gravell said he’s in favor of the move, and that he’s “always been a huge proponent of personal choice and the ability for individuals to make their own decisions.”
Businesses, meanwhile, are split on the idea of not requiring masks and opening up to full capacity. Some are itching to reopen the doors and allow patrons at pre-pandemic levels while some will still require masks and keep capacity limited until more people are vaccinated.
Donn Alderman, the owner of Austin piano bar Donn’s Depot, said once his place opens after plumbing issues left by February’s winter storms are fixed, he’ll still require masks and won’t open to full capacity.