Texas is about to reopen all the way, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday afternoon.
Citing a statewide decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations and in new cases and of progress in distributing vaccines, Abbott announced he was canceling his statewide order limiting capacities in businesses and requiring people to wear face coverings in public places.
“It is now time to open Texas 100 percent,” Abbott said.
Abbott’s announcement was met with a mix of elation, acceptance, skepticism, optimism and uncertainty about how to manage the details among local civic and business leaders.
In the first announcement about COVID restrictions in nearly six months, Abbott on Texas Independence Day said he was ready to remove the state from under COVID protection protocols and allow people to make their own decisions about keeping themselves safe from the virus.
“Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared,” Abbott said. “But it’s clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed.”
“Today’s announcement does not abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year. Instead, it’s a reminder that each person has a role to play in their own personal safety and the safety of others.”
His executive orders go into effect March 10.
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said it was “about time” Abbott rescinded the statewide mask order.
Henry said he didn’t believe masks protected people from the virus.
“The only studies I have seen say masks don’t do any good at all,” Henry said. “I don’t know why we did it in the first place.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as local entities including the Galveston County Health District and the University of Texas Medical Branch, have recommended masking as one of the most protective measures against the virus for nearly the entire pandemic.
Other leaders were more critical of Abbott’s decisions.
“I think it’s absolutely premature, counterproductive and may very well incite another surge in the virus,” Texas City Mayor Dedrick Johnson said.
“I’m just as tired as the next person, but I am not so tired that I want to risk my health and the health of those around me for the sake of exercising my liberties.”
La Marque Mayor Keith Bell said the governor’s actions were “an attempt to balance our physical well-being with our fiscal well-being.”
“It will require personal responsibility from us all,” Bell said. “If we want our economy to rebound, its incumbent upon all of us to be prudent. We will see what happens next.”
In Galveston, where city leaders last week began discussion and then postponed talks about ending the city’s pandemic-related emergency orders, Mayor Craig Brown declined to comment directly on Abbott’s announcement.
“When you’re in a situation like this, there’s probably never a good time,” Brown said.
The Galveston City Council had been poised to talk about implementing a masking ordinance to replace a rule tied to emergency orders. That’s a moot point now because the city will follow Abbott’s orders, Brown said.
“We would request that our visitors down here take safety precautions to protect themselves,” Brown said. “We understand that they have the option to not follow those orders.”
Thousands of visitors are expected to drive to Galveston in the next two weeks for spring break. City and tourism officials expect this will be a busy spring break, which will lead to a busy summer season.
In his speech from a Lubbock Chamber of Commerce meeting, Abbott emphasized the onus would now be on individuals, and individual businesses, to decide what COVID precautions to take.
“If businesses want to limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols, they have the right to do so,” Abbott said. “It’s their business and they get to operate their business the way they want to.”
The next week likely will bring announcements about how businesses will deal with unmasked customers without the mandate that has been in place since June.
After a challenging year of limited dining capacity at restaurants and in some cases watching large parties being turned away because of state restrictions, Johnny Smecca, principal of Galveston Restaurant Group, welcomed Abbott’s announcement with a sense of optimism, he said.
Galveston Restaurant Group owns concepts on the island and League City, including Saltwater Grill, The Gumbo Diner, Papa’s Pizza, Mario’s Seawall Italian Restaurant, Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar and Taquilo’s Tex-Mex Cantina.
“The opening of the dining room does so much for us,” Smecca said. “We were choked off for almost a year. Having our dining rooms back right before spring break gives us an opportunity to catch up.”
But Galveston Restaurant Group will continue to follow pandemic protocols and require employees to wear masks at least through spring break, Smecca said. The company’s restaurants will continue working to make employees and customers feel safe and will keep in place all its sanitation protocols, he said.
“I’ve always looked at first how to protect employees — they’re the lifeblood — and then I looked at what I have to do to make customers feel safe,” Smecca said.
Some major employers were quick to announce their policies under the new mandate. H-E-B, which operates five grocery stores in Galveston County, said it would begin to allow customers in without a masks but would require employees and vendors to keep wearing face coverings.
Landry’s Inc., which operates dozens of businesses in Galveston County, including two amusement parks, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about Abbott’s orders.
League City Mayor pro tem Hank Dugie, chairman of the Galveston County COVID-19 Business Taskforce, applauded Abbott’s announcement and called on people to support local businesses “regardless of what decision they make.”
“I think it’s a great thing and great timing with it coming on Texas Independence Day,” he said. “It’s symbolic of the true nature of Texas.”
Abbott’s announcement came with little forewarning. He hinted at a major business announcement Monday afternoon, before making the announcement Tuesday afternoon. He didn’t take any questions from the media after the announcement.
The announcement left unclear how schools should respond. The Galveston Independent School District said it was waiting for guidance from the Texas Education Agency, while Texas City ISD said it would keep its current rules, which require masks, in place for the time being. Clear Creek ISD also said it would continue current protocols until it heard from the Texas Education Agency.
Two hours after Abbott’s press conference, the education agency said it would issue new guidance later this week.
Abbott didn’t mention any changes in rules allowing schools to operate virtual classrooms.
Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset said he was seeking guidance from the Texas Jail Commission about whether he could begin allowing people to visit inmates for the first time since March 19, 2020.
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY
Abbott cited heartening statistics on the number of Texans who have been vaccinated or have already recovered from the virus to justify reopening.
Public health officials had hoped to get as many as 80 percent of the population vaccinated.
As of Tuesday, about 2 million Texans, 8 percent of the state’s population, were fully vaccinated. In Galveston County, about 11 percent of the population is vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
About 7 percent of Galveston County residents have contracted and recovered from the virus, although that doesn’t account for people who have caught the virus and recovered without a confirmed diagnosis.
Abbott, citing unnamed experts, said the true number of recoveries in the state is as much as five times the reported number.
Abbott also cited a better situation on the ground in terms of hospitalizations and active COVID cases in Texas, saying the figures are back to levels that existed in November.
Galveston County has yet to return to those low levels of hospitalizations seen last fall, however. On Monday, about 70 COVID patients were in Galveston County hospitals, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. At the height of the winter spike, more than 130 people were in county hospitals with COVID-19. In October, the number of daily hospitalizations was in the 20s.
Similarly, the 4,161 active cases in the county Tuesday were more than double the number of known active cases in November.
Abbott left the door open for more restrictions in the future at the judgment of local leaders. If the number of people hospitalized with COVID in a region surpasses 15 percent for more than seven days, a county judge can implement local COVID restrictions, Abbott said.
If a county implements its own rules, the restrictions can’t be enforced with jail time or other punishments, Abbott said.
Henry didn’t believe the county would have to worry about returning to the high hospitalization rate it saw during the winter peak, he said.
The nine-county Trauma Service Area that includes Galveston County has been below the 15 percent hospitalization rate since Feb. 13.
Henry didn’t dismiss the possibility of implementing local orders if cases spike again, however.
He said he would consult with the Galveston County Health District and make a decision.
Managing Editor Laura Elder and reporters Matt DeGrood, Keri Heath and Myer Lee contributed to the article.