Reactions to Gov. Abbott's lifting of COVID-19 restrictions have been mixed. Some Texans are calling it a mistake, while others are saying it's a positive step forward.
The change will go into effect next week on Wednesday, March 10. Abbott said he's hopeful vaccine distribution will accelerate. So far, The Texas Tribune reports less than 7% of Texans have been fully vaccinated.
Roughly 75%-90% of Texans will need to achieve immunity to the coronavirus in order for the state to reach herd immunity, according to health experts.
Leaders of Texas' largest cities have come out in strong opposition, with many calling the lift of restrictions a political move from Gov. Abbott. In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo both sharply criticized the move.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price called the move "premature" in a statement.
"Additionally, I am calling on Governor Abbott to open up additional vaccine tier categories so that more people are eligible to get a vaccine if they want one," said Price. "As the state’s directive has changed, so must our response."
Dr. Mark Escott, Austin Public Health's interim medical director, told KUT News the move was badly timed, and could lead to a surge in new cases just as hospitalizations in the city were dropping.
"Particularly the masking mandate, which really has been the most effective public policy decision the governor has made, certainly has the potential to initiate a surge," Escott said.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg echoed that sentiment. "Opening everything to 100% while simultaneously nixing our state's mask mandate is a huge mistake," wrote Nirenberg in a tweet. "Please join me in continuing to wear a mask."
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins also took to Twitter, calling for residents to ignore "what the Gov. says is illegal," and instead focus on "facts and science."
Judge Jenkins also called the move political, tweeting that Abbott's full reopening of Texas "bucks science but mollifies GOP base as he attempts to divert attention from his lack of preparation for and mishandling of the Texas power grid collapse."
State and federal lawmakers' reactions fell mostly along party lines, with Texas Republicans supporting the changes, seen by some as overdue.
“The unparalleled efforts of government and the pharmaceutical industry to defeat the novel coronavirus prove what we've always known: vaccines work," said Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan in a statement. "With greater access to vaccinations, better treatment options, and decreasing hospitalization rates, the Texas approach empowers citizens to exercise personal responsibility about their health in the fight against COVID-19."
Positive, Mixed Reaction From Businesses And Business Leaders
The governor's lifting of mask and capacity restrictions have been praised by owners of restaurants and bars across the state, while they've encouraged businesses to continue taking precautions.
"Obviously, we were really excited to hear it," Chris Berry, president of the Lubbock Restaurant Association, told Texas Tech Public Radio immediately following Abbott's announcement. Berry co-owns River Smith's Chicken & Catfish in Lubbock, and says the city has lost around 20 restaurants in the past year.
"We still want to exercise caution," said Berry, so diners feel safe and comfortable.
"Once again, the governor is striking the right balance by removing the heavy hand of government and allowing businesses to operate as they see fit," said Glenn Hamer, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, in a statement released by the governor's office. "One year into dealing with COVID-19, organizations understand what protocols they must implement to function safely, and TAB knows Texas companies will operate responsibly."
Maggie Thompson is executive director of the San Antonio River Walk Association, which represents many of the famous water way and tourist attraction's 150 hotels, bars, restaurants and retailers.
"They have taken great steps to protect guests at hotels and restaurants and attractions. This new standard of safety shows the commitment to the well-being of all River Walk visitors," Thompson told Texas Public Radio.
"We definitely encourage everyone who visits to continue to follow and commit to all the COVID safety protocols," Thompson said.
School Districts, Teachers And Parents Respond
Several large city school districts have already announced they will keep masks on. In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Houston ISD, the state's largest district, said the district "will continue to require all students, staff and visitors to wear masks on district property and at district events." Learn more about school's reaction in Greater Houston here.
Tish Ochoa, a parent and restaurant owner in Houston, was planning to send her child back to school after Spring Break. She called Abbott's announcement "heartbreaking news."
Ochoa has lost family to COVID-19. She told Houston Public Media that her third grader "has major COVID fear."
"She has been home for a full year and is struggling. I need her back in school for her well being, but I cannot put her at even more risk if mask mandates are not enforced," said Ochoa.
"I say this as a small business owner who is struggling during this pandemic. Nothing is more important than the safety of our kids."
In North Texas, both Dallas and Fort Worth ISDs plan to continue their current COVID-19 protection protocols, which include mask-wearing. As will Denton ISD.
“Our teachers have yet to be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine, and they have been on the frontlines throughout the pandemic — keeping schools open for our students,” Dr. Jamie Wilson, Denton's superintendent of schools, said in a statement on Tuesday. “We will look at our protocols based on the announcement, and the safety of our students and staff is paramount.”
The Texas Department of State Health Services announced on Wednesday that teachers and school staff are now eligible for the vaccine.
The Lubbock-Cooper Independent School District announced it would no longer require masks after Wednesday, March 10. "Students and staff members who wish to continue wearing face coverings are certainly permitted to continue," the district said in a statement.
El Paso ISD tweeted Tuesday that it will "continue to follow all current safety protocols until we receive further guidance and information from the Texas Education Agency," a stance many other districts have taken as well.
The Texas Education Agency tweeted Tuesday night that public health guidance was forthcoming.
Texas teachers are expressing disappoint, "primarily because Texas school employees still do not have priority access to the vaccine," said Jennifer Mitchell of The Association of Texas Professional Educators, speaking to KERA News.
That association represents more than 100,000 teachers, along with some administrators. Mitchell told KERA the organization believes it’s important to keep the mask requirement in place until teachers are vaccinated.
While some companies have already signaled new policies to allow customers to go without face coverings, others are adhering to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommend people wear masks in public and while occupying indoor public spaces.
A Buc-ee’s spokesperson said the company was crafting a statement in response to the governor’s decision, but did not provide a response as of Wednesday afternoon. This story will be updated if it does.
A Costco representative said the company will stick with the mask-wearing requirement at its Texas outlets. A November 2020 letter posted by Craig Jelinek, it's president and CEO, notes that customers are required to wear masks.
The San Antonio-based supermarket chain said it will require employees to wear masks indoors, and will be asking shoppers to wear them as well — but won’t be requiring face coverings for customers, according to Lisa Helfman, public affairs director with H-E-B Houston.
After a Houston-based spokesperson told Houston Public Media Wednesday morning that the grocery chain would “encourage” all customers to wear masks, the company later reversed course, saying that it would instead mandate face coverings for all shoppers inside Kroger stores across the country.
The Texas Newsroom, including member stations KERA, KUT, TPR, HPM and Texas Tech Public Radio contributed to this report.
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