Texas governor lifts masks order; says businesses can open at 100%

Announcement catches area school officials by surprise
Gov. Greg Abbott.
Gov. Greg Abbott.(CBS DFW)
Published: Mar. 2, 2021 at 1:49 PM CST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2021 at 5:00 PM CST
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KWTX) - Texas Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday announced he’s lifting the mask mandate he issued eight months ago and lifting restrictions on Texas businesses.

“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” Abbott said Tuesday afternoon in Lubbock.

“With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus,” Abbott said.

“We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100%.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Abbott chose to make the announcement on Texas Independence Day.

The new executive order, Abbott issued Tuesday, which is effective at one minute after midnight on March 10, rescinds most earlier orders related to COVID-19, ending the statewide mask mandate and allowing businesses of any type to open at 100% capacity.

Businesses may limit capacity and impose safety protocols at their own discretion.

The announcement caught area school officials by surprise.

The Texas Education Agency said it would provide guidance to districts later this week.

A conference call is scheduled with district superintendents on Thursday.

The new order applies only to counties in Trauma Service Areas in which COVID-19 hospitalizations are 15% or less than hospital capacity, but it does not allow county judges to impose jail time for failure to follow COVID-19 orders or imposing penalties for failure to wear a face mask.

“Texas is far better positioned now that when I issued my last order in October,” Abbott said, citing the availability of personal protective equipment, COVID-19 testing and increasing supplies of vaccines.

Abbott issued orders on Sept. 17 and Oct. 7 tied to hospitalization rates relaxing earlier restrictions.

He predicted within a few months every Texas who wants to be vaccinated can get vaccinated.

COVID-19 has not disappeared, he said, but it’s clear state mandates are no longer needed.

“Each person has their own role to play in their personal safety as well as the safety of others,” he said.

Texas House Democratic Caucus Chairman State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington, accused Abbott of lifting the mask order and capacity restrictions to divert attention “from his recent failures during the winter storm” that crippled most of the state.

”Masks work to slow the spread of COVID-19, plain and simple,” he said.

“The fastest way we can all get back to normal is to listen to the director of the CDC, who just said that ‘now is not the time to relax restrictions.’ If the last year has taught us anything, it is that we need to listen to doctors and scientists more, not less.”

Bell County Judge David Blackburn said hospitalization rates in the county have improved in the past several months.

“That said, it is certainly arguable as to whether those improved hospitalization rates are the result of the COVID protocols that have been imposed or if other factors have played a part,” he said.

“It continues to be clear that the governor does not want local governments imposing restrictions, save and unless the trauma service area hospitalization rate exceeds 15%, and then those restrictions are limited to limiting occupancy rates of businesses,” Blackburn said. “It is also clear that the governor believes personal responsibility is the appropriate means for protecting the public health.”

Texas American Federal of Teachers President Zeph Capo said Abbott’s order could “throw out public schools, students and teachers into chaos” because it’s not clear on whether masks will be required in all schools.

The Texas Education Agency’s current guidance is that schools must comply with Abbott’s executive orders regarding masks, but Abbott’s new order says schools must follow TEA protocols, he said.

“Abbott has shirked his responsibility to stick with medical advice and clarify what needs to happen to keep our schools safe,” Capo said.

“Every top health official has stressed that even with vaccinations we need to keep using the most simple tools to stop the spread. So what does Abbot do? He rejects the most effective tool we have–masks.”

The Texas Classroom Teachers Association also criticized the governor’s decision.

“In the absence of widespread availability of vaccines, and given the state’s refusal to prioritize school employees for vaccination, the removal of statewide health protocols is premature and will undo the progress that we have been making in getting the virus under control,” TCTA Executive Director Jeri Stone said.

“We call on the TEA commissioner and school districts across the state to continue to enforce best practice recommendations from health experts and the CDC to better ensure the health and safety of their students, teachers and communities.”

The Killeen ISD, in a Facebook post, said it awaits further guidance.

“At this time, Killeen ISD will not make any changes to the Public Health Guide, including our COVID-19 face-covering mitigation protocols, until we receive further guidance from the Texas Education Agency.”

Waco ISD Superintendent Dr. Susan Kincannon, a statement posted on Facebook, said the district considers masks “any important measure to limit the spread of COVID-19 on our campuses and in other district facilities.”

“We didn’t know this information was coming out today, we’re really shocked by it quite honestly,” she told KWTX.

“I think that announcement really undermines the work that we’ve done all year to protect our students and our staff from the virus and the spread of the virus. For us, we think we should be able to continue to put in these safety measures to keep the spread of the virus from happening and to protect our students and our staff. And so we’ll be looking to the Texas Education Agency for guidance moving forward, but right now the plan for Waco ISD is for our students to wear masks, and I don’t see that changing for the remainder of the school year.”

Temple ISD Superintendent Dr. Bobby Ott, in a letter to parents Tuesday, said the district will follow existing safety protocols until advised to do otherwise by the Bell County Public Health District.

The governor’s announcement, he said, “will not change any of Temple ISD’s current health and safety protocols at this time,” he said.

The Belton ISD is reviewing Abbott’s order and said district officials should have an update by March 9.

“As with previous executive orders, we anticipate receiving further guidance directed at Texas public schools from agencies such as the Texas Education Agency. We will also consult with local medical professionals and partners at the Bell County Public Health District, the districts executive director of communications and community engagement, Elizabeth Cox, said in a statement.

Copperas Cove ISD Superintendent Dr. Joe Burns, in a press release, said the district is also awaiting guidance from the TEA.

He said a conference call is planned Thursday.

Pignetti's restaurant.
Pignetti's restaurant.(Megan Vanselow)

In Temple, Pignetti’s restaurant owner, Clinton Howell says his restaurant never exceeded 50% capacity even though it could have.

“We will continue to run at 50% for a while longer, but I’m very happy that there’s an end in sight.”

“I want customers to feel comfortable. We’ll still be full at 50%, we’ll just have more space for people, and it’s all about the psychology of the percentage so over time we will phase in more tables,” Howell said.

“The idea of going out to dine is to enjoy yourself and be relaxed and have a good experience and if you feel nervous or uncomfortable then you’re not having that dining experience you want,” Howell said.

Abbott issued the mask order on July 2, 2020 requiring residents of all counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases to wear face coverings in public areas.

The order provided for a warning to first-time violators, a fine of as much as $250 for a second violation and fines of as much as $250 for each subsequent violation.

The order listed exemptions including children younger than 10, people with medical conditions, people who are eating and people who are exercising, but did not exempt anyone attending a protest or demonstration involving more than 10 people.

Eight Central Texas counties were reporting 20 or fewer active cases of the virus at the time the order was issued, including Bosque with 10; Freestone with 19; Hamilton with 11; Lampasas with 13; Leon with six; Milam with 18; Mills with none, and San Saba with three, according to state Department of Health Services data.

As of Monday, Bosque County had 1,303 total confirmed cases of the virus, Freestone had 1,038, Hamilton had 689, Lampasas had 1,729, Leon had 1,207, Milam had 1,331, Mills had 573 and San Saba had 564.

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