As people cheered in a Lubbock restaurant where Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday he is rescinding COVID-19 orders statewide, alarm bells rang in San Antonio, where local leaders called the move irresponsible.
Beginning March 10, all businesses will be able to open at 100% capacity, Abbott said during the Tuesday announcement. The measure essentially wipes out all statewide COVID-19 mandates, including requiring public mask use. Business capacity rules have been in effect since last April, with the governor enacting the mask mandate in June.
Abbott said it would be a matter of “personal responsibility” – not the government’s – for Texans to continue wearing masks. Under the executive order Abbott signed Tuesday, county judges will be able to enact COVID-19 regulations, such as mask mandates and business restrictions, only if coronavirus hospitalizations in its hospital region – there are 22 statewide – exceeds 15% of the region’s hospital capacity.
“He stripped away every possible thing you could do,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said of the governor’s announcement. “It’s bullshit.”
Cases of the coronavirus have fallen since they peaked in Texas in January, but the state is still seeing more than 7,000 new cases a day. After falling in late February, COVID-19 deaths in the state have started to pick up slightly.
Bexar County has beaten back a coronavirus surge that saw a record number of deaths in January and has experienced a dip in the rate of positive coronavirus tests for six consecutive weeks. At 5.6% positivity, however, Bexar County remains above the threshold local public health officials have identified as indicative of low community transmission. On Tuesday, the number of patients in local hospitals being treated for COVID-19 jumped after days of decline.
Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, a local epidemiologist, said she aims to support businesses that have suffered from low patronage amid the restrictions, but opening them at 100% capacity is concerning. Rescinding the mask order will leave businesses with little they can do to protect their employees and customers, she said.
“We should have at the very least maintained the mask requirements because those protect businesses, they protect the staff at the businesses,” Rohr-Allegrini said. “Removing that puts them in danger.
“It sucks for everybody … because, frankly, if your concern is to protect yourself – and not just yourself, you’re protecting your family and protecting those around you – then you’re not going to patronize those businesses,” she said. “And that’s going to hurt the businesses.”
Part of Abbott’s reasoning for lifting the restrictions is that the state’s vaccine supply is expanding with an increased allotment of Pfizer and Moderna shots as well as the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine. A statewide initiative called Save Our Seniors began in earnest recently with the aim to vaccinate senior residents that lack access to resources. He said the state aims to vaccinate every senior Texan who wants the shot by the end of March.
He also promised that any Texan who wants to get a COVID-19 vaccination will be able to get one within a few months.
But ending the statewide orders before that happens is premature and dangerous, local leaders said. Calling the measure a huge mistake, Mayor Ron Nirenberg likened it to cutting off one’s parachute before slowing their descent. He urged San Antonians to continue wearing a mask.
“Rolling back precautions across the state – before the majority of Texans are vaccinated and at a time when we’re contending with new variants of COVID-19 – recklessly endangers the lives of millions,” Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said. “It is a slap in the face to every frontline worker who continues to risk their lives.”
Wolff said the governor has acted prematurely before. Last spring, the governor announced his plan to open the state after a weeks-long lockdown.
“His order in May of last year led to numerous deaths,” he said. “Hopefully it won’t this time, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Government Reporter Jackie Wang contributed to this story.