Restaurants are searching new workers as the pandemic winds down.
Restaurants are searching new workers as the pandemic winds down. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This story has been updated.

On Wednesday, Texas will lose its statewide mask mandate and allow all businesses to operate at full capacity. It will become the most populous state in the country without these restrictions.

The changes follow Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement last week that the pandemic had reached a point where “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate” any longer.

“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” he said.

The move has drawn mixed reactions from business owners as well as confusion about what measures businesses can take to protect employees and customers. Here’s what you need to know about how things will change on Wednesday:

Can a business require its patrons wear masks?

Yes. Even though the state no longer requires masks, the business still can. The governor’s order leaves room for business owners to enforce a right to refuse services. It’s similar to the classic “no shoes, no shirt, no service.” In other words, the business owner can make their own rules within their premises, and they are not obligated to provide service to anyone who walks through the door.

Does a business have to post a sign that it requires a mask?

On Tuesday, March 9, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said he and Mayor Ron Nirenberg would sign an emergency health order requiring local businesses to post their COVID-19 health policies, including face-covering protocols, in a visible location on the business’s premises.

Can public spaces like libraries or courthouses impose mask mandates?

Yes, Gonzales said, if the person in charge of that space makes a requirement.

San Antonio International Airport stated Monday that face masks would continue to be required for travel and in the airport, as required by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

VIA Metropolitan Transit passengers ages 2 and older and employees will be required to wear masks, and people must don a mask inside VIA buildings in compliance with federal law.

City employees and visitors in City facilities must continue to wear a face covering, and people on the City-owned River Walk are expected to comply with the mask mandate when it is not possible to maintain 6 feet of distance from others.

What about federal buildings?

Additionally, masks are required in all federal buildings, under an executive order signed by President Joe Biden on Jan 20. That means masks are required at post offices, the San Antonio Missions, military bases, and the federal building and courthouse downtown.

What happens if someone refuses to wear a mask inside a business that requires it?

A business is free to kick that patron out. If the patron refuses to leave, the business can call law enforcement. If the patron continues to refuse to leave, authorities arriving on the scene will have the discretion to make an arrest for criminal trespassing.

“If you dig your heels in and refuse, just be ready to take a ride downtown,” said Gonzales.

A conviction for a Class B misdemeanor for trespassing carries penalties of up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine. A Class A misdemeanor carries penalties of up to a $4,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

Importantly, this is different than being arrested for refusing to wear a mask. A person could be also be arrested for trespassing if a business owner asked them to take off their mask or leave, and the patron refused.

Gonzales said no one to his knowledge has been arrested for trespassing due to a mask-related incident.

But he cautioned that his office was willing to prosecute. “I want the business community to know that we will support them,” he said.

He also told business owners not to try to remove a patron on their own. If a patron is unruly and refuses to leave, the business should wait for law enforcement to handle the situation.

Is H-E-B still requiring masks?

The grocery store chain stated shortly after Abbott’s announcement last week that it would drop its mask requirement. However, on Friday H-E-B revised its stance, saying it would continue to require masks.

“We will continue to expect shoppers to wear masks while in our stores,” the company stated on its website. “Additionally, we will still require all our Partners and vendors to wear masks while at work.”

The grocery chain’s president, Scott McClelland, told a Houston TV news station last week that if a customer comes into the store without a mask, an employee will ask them to put one on. If the customer doesn’t have a mask, one will be provided.

McClelland said if the customer refuses, it will not escalate beyond that.

Can a restaurant or other business really operate at full capacity?

Yes, if the restaurant chooses to do so. No local political entities, such as a county judge, can impose pandemic-related restrictions on an establishment. This includes social distancing. Businesses are not required to abide by or enforce pandemic-related guidelines, though they are still advised to do so by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Can the local government enforce its own mask requirement or restrict businesses?

No – except in very specific circumstances.

Even then, Abbott said that “under no circumstance” can a county judge – until now the primary authority on local pandemic restrictions – jail someone for not following their orders. They also cannot impose penalties on people for failing to wear masks. They cannot impose penalties on businesses for not making their own mask requirements.

The only way local restrictions could be reintroduced is if COVID-19 hospitalizations in any of Texas’ 22 hospital regions rise above 15% capacity for seven straight days. None of the hospital regions meet the exception criteria at the moment. In the region that includes Bexar County, 6.2 percent of hospitalizations are related to COVID-19, according to the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council.

And if local restrictions are triggered, businesses still will be allowed to operate at 50% capacity at the minimum.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.