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Mayors and county judges in some of Texas’ largest urban areas criticized Gov. Greg Abbott over his decision to lift the statewide face mask mandate next week, saying it contradicts health officials’ advice as infections continue to spread throughout the state, which averaged over 200 reported deaths a day over the last week.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, a fellow Republican, called Abbott’s order “premature” and asked him to allow more people to get the vaccine.
“I am calling on Gov. Abbott to open up additional vaccine tier categories so that more people are eligible to get a vaccine if they want one,” Price said in a statement. “As the state’s directive has changed, so must our response. Now, more than ever, vaccines and testing must be readily available.”
City and county officials urged residents in their areas to still follow recommendations from health experts and officials that call for wearing face masks in public.
“We need to focus not on what the governor tells you the law allows, but what doctors and the facts and the science that we all know well at this point tell us is necessary to keep us safe and give us our best chance of reaching herd immunity as quickly as possible,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said.
In addition to lifting the mask mandate next week, Abbott will allow businesses to operate at full capacity. If COVID-19 hospitalizations in any of Texas' 22 hospital regions rise above 15% of the capacity in that region for seven straight days, a county judge "may use COVID mitigation strategies in their county," according to the governor.
But officials lambasted the latest order because it does not allow local leaders to enforce their own mask mandates. The latest order also removes a previous option available to local leaders: compel businesses to require that customers wear face masks.
The order also establishes that nothing “precludes businesses or other establishments from requiring employees or customers to follow additional hygiene measures, including the wearing of a face covering.” That brought little relief to local leaders.
“I'm very disappointed, it's an irresponsible action. We still have 464 people in the hospital and 199 in ICU as of yesterday,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. “We're still not out of the woods. And I think it's very premature to do this.”
Texans and Americans of color have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. More than half of the deaths due to COVID-19 have been Black or Hispanic people, and advocates have reported that these communities have fallen behind in the vaccination efforts. In Texas and across the country, front-line employees are predominantly women and are more likely to be people of color than other workers, according to an Associated Press analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data last year.
Wolff was the first county judge to force businesses to mandate masks in June last year, after finding a loophole in Abbott’s previous order which didn’t allow local leaders to establish countywide mandates. Now he said that he won’t be able to do so anymore.
“He's plugged that hole. He allows businesses to do what they want to do,” said Wolff, who last year was attacked by a customer that refused to use a mask. “Now law enforcement has no right to be called on it.”
Wolff said that Abbott’s latest order leaves counties limited to encouraging people to wear masks and socially distance.
“That's about all we can do from what we interpreted,” Wolff said.
Officials from Dallas, Harris and Travis counties said that their legal teams are still studying the order to clarify these aspects and what they are allowed to do.
In El Paso, a county that has seen more than 2,000 COVID-19 related deaths, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego tweeted that Abbott’s order on masks “would be equivalent to him stating that we don’t have to wear our seatbelts…but it would be a good idea if we did.”
El Paso has over 280 bodies in our Holding Facility and 2,086 total deaths have been reported. @GovAbbott's directive to no longer make masks mandatory would be equivalent to him stating that we don’t have to wear our seatbelts…but it would be a good idea if we did.— County Judge Ricardo Samaniego (@EPCountyJudge) March 2, 2021
In a statement, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo questioned the moment for this announcement.
“With the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, we’re inching closer to the finish line of this pandemic — now is not the time to reverse the gains we’ve worked so hard to achieve,” Hidalgo said. “At best, today’s decision is wishful thinking. At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”
Prior to the press conference, Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a letter to Abbott asking him to keep the mask requirement in place. Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown wrote a letter with the same message.
“We believe it would be premature and harmful to do anything to lose widespread adoption of this preventive measure. Scientific studies have shown repeatedly that the widespread wearing of face masks slows down the virus,” the letter reads. “Especially with the arrival of new variants of the virus to Texas and our cities, with the associated spike in cases, preserving the most effective of our existing safety measures is even more important.”
In San Antonio, Mayor Ron Nirenberg called opening businesses at 100% capacity and at the same time banning mask mandates a “huge mistake.”
“COVID-19 is still widespread in our community and infecting too many of our vulnerable residents,” Niremberg said in a statement. “You don’t cut off your parachute just as you’ve slowed your descent. Please join me in continuing to wear a mask.”
In a statement, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson called residents to “continue to mask up” and said that “now is not the time to let down our guard.”
Disclosure: Steve Adler is a former Texas Tribune board chairman and has been a financial supporter of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.