AUSTIN, Texas (NewsNation Now) — Texans woke up Wednesday with their statewide mask mandate and occupancy restrictions in businesses lifted, a move some heralded as freedom and others as foolishness.
Texas’ rollback of coronavirus mitigation efforts is the most sweeping seen in the United States, along with a similar measure in Mississippi. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the change last week.
“It’s time to reopen Texas 100%,” Abbott said. “So that any business that wants to open can open.”
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.
Several major retailers, grocery and restaurant chains in Texas said they would still require that masks be worn in their stores, which under Abbott’s order relaxing restrictions is their right to do.
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.
Abbott imposed the statewide mask mandate in July during a deadly summer increase. But enforcement was spotty at best, and some sheriffs refused to police the restrictions at all. And as the pandemic dragged on, Abbott ruled out a return to tough COVID-19 rules, arguing that lockdowns do not work.
Only California and New York have reported more COVID-19 deaths than Texas. Texas has reported more than 2.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 45,000 deaths from the virus, according to data complied by Johns Hopkins University.
According to the latest data released by the state, only about 2.4 million people of the nearly 29 million residents have been fully inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer Inc/ BioNTech SE, Moderna Inc and Johnson & Johnson.
NewsNation affiliate KXAN and Reuters contributed to this report.