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Abbott Recommits To Making Sure Vaccines And Masks Aren't Mandated In Texas

Despite rising cases and hospitalization, Gov. Abbott said Thursday he thinks Texans have “mastered the safe practices” that help stop the spread of COVID-19.

By Marisa Charpentier, KUT

Gov. Greg Abbott is doubling down on his push to ensure COVID-19 vaccines and mask-wearing remain optional in Texas.

The governor issued an  executive order Thursday stating no governmental entity can require anyone to receive a COVID-19 vaccine that’s approved under an emergency use authorization. (All COVID-19 vaccines approved in the U.S. currently fall under  that use category.)

This new order effectively voids all of Abbott’s previous COVID-related executive orders and combines some of them into one. The main takeaway: The state and local governments can’t require masks or vaccines.

“Today’s executive order will provide clarity and uniformity in the Lone Star State’s continued fight against COVID-19,” Abbott said in a press release. “The new Executive Order emphasizes that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates.”

Governments can’t mandate COVID-related operating limits on businesses — not even when hospitalizations surge — or require face coverings. School districts cannot mandate masks, either.

State agencies can’t require people to provide documentation about their COVID vaccination status in order to enter the agency or receive services from it. The same applies to public and private entities that receive public funds (grants, contracts and loans, for example).

“No consumer may be denied entry to a facility financed in whole or in part by public funds for failure to provide documentation regarding the consumer’s vaccination status for any COVID-19 vaccine administered under an emergency use authorization,” the order reads.

State-supported living centers, nursing homes and long-term care facilities, though, can still require COVID-19 vaccine documentation from residents. State-supported living centers and government-owned hospitals can still have mask policies.

The new order nulls all previous executive orders about COVID except  GA-13 (relating to jails) and  GA-37 (relating to the transportation of migrants). It does end an order that required hospitals to postpone elective surgeries if COVID hospitalizations get too high in a region. It also undoes an order that allowed county judges to limit business occupancy to 50% when COVID hospitalizations in the region reach a certain threshold.

Thursday’s order comes as COVID-19 cases surge in the state, fueled by the highly contagious delta variant and waning vaccination rates. So far, 52.44% of people 12 and older in Texas are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Health care workers are again finding themselves  overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated.

In Austin, the public health agency and local officials are imploring people to get vaccinated.

Mayor Steve Adler has called for city employees to be vaccinated, which cannot be done under Abbott’s order. Adler is also urging businesses to require employees get vaccinated.

“With alarming increases in cases, ICU admissions and community positivity rates, we must do more," Adler said Wednesday. "We must especially act to better protect our children under 12 who cannot get vaccinated and are being put at needless increased risk."

Abbott is taking a markedly different approach than some states and federal agencies. Officials in  New York City and California announced vaccine mandates for public employees this week. At the federal level, the Department of Veterans Affairs is requiring front-line health care workers to get vaccinated.

Despite rising cases and hospitalizations, Abbott  said Thursday he thinks Texans have “mastered the safe practices” that help stop the spread of COVID-19.

“[Texans] have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, and engage in leisure activities,” he said. “Vaccines, which remain in abundant supply, are the most effective defense against the virus, and they will always remain voluntary – never forced – in the State of Texas.”