LUBBOCK, Texas: Texas ended a statewide mask mandate and occupancy restrictions on businesses were lifted on Wednesday (Mar 10), a move some heralded as freedom and others as foolishness.
On paper, Texas' rollback of coronavirus mitigation efforts is the most sweeping seen in the United States, along with a similar measure in Mississippi. In practice, vast swaths of Texas have rarely enforced mask or occupancy mandates in the past year, anyway.
Several major retailers, grocery and restaurant chains in Texas said they would still require that masks be worn in their stores, which under Governor Greg Abbott's order relaxing restrictions is their right.
Texas was one of the first states to reopen its economy after the first wave of pandemic cases last May, and the nation's second-most populous state led the way again last week when Abbott, a Republican, announced the relaxation amid declines in new daily COVID-19 cases and with the rollout of vaccines.
As of Sunday, 18 per cent of the US population had received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
County officials in regions where COVID-19 patients take up 15 per cent or more of hospital beds for seven consecutive days can enact new mask and occupancy restrictions, under Abbott's order, but no regions are currently in that situation.
Austin's city council voted to still require masks, though it did not indicate how that would be enforced. Council members openly dared state officials to sue the city.
"In Austin, we're committed to saving lives," city council member Greg Casar wrote on Twitter.
The Texas Attorney General's Office wrote on its Twitter account that it was "looking at every avenue available" to take on Austin.
WORRIES AND TRUST
The Texas Education Agency's guidance for public schools is for the continued use of masks, while nursing homes in the state will not loosen restrictions.
The Dallas Jewish Conservatives organisation plans to host a party on Wednesday evening with about 200 people. There will be a moment of silence for the pandemic's dead, refreshments for the guests and a bonfire into which folks will be encouraged to toss masks.
"It's about freedom, liberty and personal responsibility," said Benjie Gershon, founder of the group. "The act of throwing a mask into the bonfire ... is in no way meant to belittle or undermine the tragic numbers of individuals who have fallen ill to COVID."
In conservative West Texas masks have largely been viewed as an unpleasant, government-mandated burden.
But Jaqueline Liri, a waitress at Raider Burrito in Lubbock, said she and other staff members have talked it over and they all want to continue wearing masks. They hoped customers would, too.
"The virus is still out there," she said. "We still have to be worried."
Over at the Taqueria y Panaderia Guadalajara restaurant in Lubbock, manager Alejandro Olivares said staff would remain masked, but he would leave it up to customers to make their own choice.
"I trust people to make the best choices for their own health," he said.