Texas schools, stores divided on masks as mandate ends

JAKE BLEIBERG and PAUL J. WEBER
·4-min read

DALLAS (AP) — The end of Texas' mask mandate is giving Lucy Alanis second thoughts about one of her occasional indulgences during the coronavirus pandemic: dining in at restaurants.

“I guess I'm a little scared," said Alanis, 27, a florist in Dallas.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's repeal of most COVID-19 restrictions — saying it was “time to open Texas 100%" — reverberated across the state and to the White House on Wednesday, a day after one of the country's most dramatic rollbacks of rules intended to slow the spread of the virus.

Businesses in Texas shed rules, city leaders plotted new safeguards and the state's 5 million schoolchildren largely remained under orders to keep wearing masks, at least for now. The pushback to Abbott's decision included one of his own pandemic advisers, who said he was not consulted ahead of time.

Texas has another week before the mandates end, but what daily life will look like after that remains unsettled after Abbott made the state the largest in the U.S. to no longer require masks, which health experts say is among the most effective ways to curb the spread of the virus.

President Joe Biden reacted to America's second-largest state winding down virus restrictions for nearly 30 million people, calling it “Neanderthal thinking."

The mask mandate, which has been in place since July, and occupancy limits on restaurants and retail stores end March 10. Already, some stores announced they still won't allow maskless customers, while social media users began tracking evolving polices on crowdsourced spreadsheets.

Shopping at Target? Masks are still required. Going to Texas' largest grocery chain, H-E-B? Face coverings are encouraged but no longer mandated.

It’s yet another test for businesses that have struggled to strike a balance between safety and survival over the past year.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said his officers will continue wearing masks. He blasted Abbott over the repeal and worries about more aggressive encounters like one in December, when a customer confronted over a mask at a Houston bar smashed a glass over an employee's head.

“We can see conflict coming, sadly," Acevedo said. “And I think that a lot of this is going to be self-inflicted."

Abbott said “personal vigilance" among Texans remained essential but that mandates were no longer needed, emphasizing the increasing availability of vaccines. On Wednesday, Texas health officials announced that teachers and child care workers were now eligible to be vaccinated.

The virus has killed more than 43,000 people in Texas, behind only California and New York. Like most of the country, new cases and hospitalizations statewide have fallen rapidly in recent weeks from record levels in January. But the toll still remains significant, including nearly 300 newly reported deaths Wednesday.

Still, federal health officials warn that the pandemic is far from over and that states should not let their guard down. Even one of Abbott's own pandemic advisers disagreed with the move.

“I don’t think this is the right time," said Dr. Mark McClellan, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, who also told The Associated Press in an email that he was not consulted before the repeals were announced. "Texas has been making some real progress but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.”

State education officials on Wednesday gave local school boards the ability to set their own rules.

Immediately after Abbott made his announcement Tuesday, the tiny Rogers school district about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Austin said its 850 students would no longer need to wear masks or undergo temperature checks. But by Wednesday morning, Superintendent Joe Craig backpedaled, saying he needed to explain the ramifications to parents.

Under the district's current protocols, if everyone is wearing a mask, a positive test doesn’t trigger an automatic quarantine of everyone in the same classroom.

“If we go to a no mask thing, that part of it changes,” Craig said. Most parents would probably not want masks, he said, “but they’re missing a piece of information they’re not considering.”

Outside a spin workout studio in Dallas, manager Nicky Cecala said he was inundated with text messages from people who knew “all the struggle and perseverance we’ve had to endure” to keep the business running over the last year.

He said whether his studio changes protocols will partially depend on what customers want, but he welcomes being able to now make the choice himself.

“I don’t think the government has a place to tell individuals what to do,” he said. “I think they can suggest it, but it becomes kinda tyrannical to force people to do something against their will.”

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Weber reported from Austin. Associated Press writer Jim Vertuno in Austin contributed to this report.