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Texas Is Lifting Its Mask Mandate And COVID Restrictions On Businesses. Here's What That Means.

By Andrew Weber, KUT News

Texas is reopening 100% next week, ending the statewide mask mandate and lifting COVID-related restrictions on businesses.

Here's a rundown of  the order and what it means for local officials, schools and businesses.

What does it do?

It pretty much does what you think it does: It lifts statewide requirements for masks or facial coverings in public spaces and removes restrictions related to COVID-19 for businesses.

When does it go into effect?

Next Wednesday, March 10, at 12:01 a.m.

How will this affect businesses?

Businesses will be able to do whatever they want, essentially. Even Gov. Greg Abbott said in his announcement, "People and businesses don't need the state telling them how to operate."

So, if businesses want to completely reopen without a mask requirement or a cap on the number of folks they want to host, they can do that. 

If businesses want to limit the number of customers allowed in their business and/or require customers and employees to wear masks, they can also do that.

So far, a whole mess of Austin businesses have suggested they'll continue their current policies of limiting capacity (at least indoors) and asking folks to wear a mask. The problem is,  as KUT's Ashley Lopez reports, businesses were really leaning on the statewide mask mandate to enforce their own policies. If someone didn't want to wear a mask, workers could point to the state's policy. 

They don't have that level of cover now in that sense, though businesses can call the police on customers if they refuse to wear a mask.

What does this mean for cities and counties if there's another surge?

Abbott's reopening order allows local officials to reinstate occupancy limits, if COVID hospitalizations surge — but it restricts their ability to enforce those rules.

So, if hospitals within one of the state's 22 trauma service areas see admissions related to COVID-19 go above 15% for a week straight, a county judge can cap occupancy in businesses at 50%. 

But enforcement of that order may prove difficult. Abbott said cities and counties can't use the threat of jail for violating a potential order. While fines aren't explicitly off the table under the governor's order, enforcing a fine-based penalty would be unwieldy. Austin has previously relied on an education-based enforcement strategy, rather than simply handing out tickets.

The order explicitly says cities and counties can't enforce mask requirements.

So, they can't limit businesses at all?

Under Abbott's new order, local officials can't limit "services" or impose "operational limitations." 

Cities and counties have previously tried to go around the governor's previous orders to do just that.

AustinSan Antonio and  El Paso have all tried using curfews to curb the spread of COVID-19, to varying degrees of success. El Paso and San Antonio successfully instituted curfews over some holidays last year, limiting only residents' ability to gather in groups. 

Austin's curfew attempt would have limited the times when businesses (read: bars and restaurants) could operate in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 over New Year's, but it was immediately challenged by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. 

The attempted curfew tried to limit in-person services at bars and restaurants between 10:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. that weekend. Under that curfew, a bar or restaurant could offer to-go orders until they closed, but they  couldn't offer in-person service in that timeframe. 

The Texas Supreme Court didn't rule on that case's merits, but it  granted an injunctionrequested by the state, effectively killing the attempted curfew hours before it was supposed to go into effect. After that, El Paso amended its similar curfew to stay in line with the governor's order — only instituting a curfew on gatherings, not business operations or services.

So, if COVID-19 hospitalizations were to surge in the next few weeks, Austin could put a cap on occupancy at 50%, but it couldn't necessarily enforce it —  and it couldn't explicitly limit a restaurant or bar's ability to serve folks in any way nor could it limit hours of operation.

Still, if things go sideways and COVID surges in the Austin area, Travis County Judge Andy Brown said Wednesday that he'd be  open to exploring whether the county could limit the hours of alcohol sales.

What does this mean for schools?

Seemingly, not much.

School districts across the state said they're going to continue requiring students and teachers to wear masks, and the Texas Education Agency said Wednesday that was OK. 

The agency still requires districts to offer in-person instruction as an option to retain state funding, but said school boards have the ability to determine their own policies on mask requirements.

A lot of educators expressed their concern in the hours after Abbott's announcement, as they were not within the state's prioritization groups for COVID-19 vaccines.  That's now changed, and the Texas Department of State Health Services says teachers are eligible for the vaccine, along with Texans over the age of 65 and those under 65 with certain pre-existing conditions.

Abbott's order also continues the previous ban on cities, counties and public health authorities from limiting private or public schools from operating, as well as higher education institutions.

What else does this order do?

On top of all that, Abbott's order allows for in-person jail visits to continue next week, allows elective surgeries to continue (if an area's COVID hospitalization rate is below the threshold of "high") and disbands the governor's so-called strike force he mobilized to reopen the state.

For jails, it's not immediately clear what that means. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards told KUT it's working on guidelines for in-person visitations to comply with the governor's order but that it hasn't yet finalized those.

Abbott's order also continues protections banning cities and counties from restrictions on religious services and child care businesses.