Texas Lifts Its State-Wide Mask Mandate, Some Businesses Disagree
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As of today, Texans are no longer required to wear a mask in public. Businesses, restaurants included, can now operate at full capacity without restrictions. Governor Greg Abbott announced the change last week despite objections from public health officials. Sarah Self-Walbrick of Texas Tech Public Media joins us now to talk about the change in policy. Hi, Sarah.
SARAH SELF-WALBRICK, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: First off, just explain how bad the COVID situation is in Texas right now.
SELF-WALBRICK: Yeah. So the governor's new order ends mandates that had been in place since last summer that have at least somewhat helped Texas' COVID situation. Abbott insists that there are fewer people in hospitals now and more people getting vaccinated, although it is worth noting that vaccinations are taking place at a much slower rate than elsewhere in the country. Texans are really split on whether the mask requirement should continue. Many think it's too soon to not require masks. But others say that wearing a mask should be a personal decision and not a matter of public policy.
MARTIN: So now that there are no state restrictions on this, it becomes a local issue, right? So how are different cities and counties responding?
SELF-WALBRICK: One example we've seen so far - in Austin, a local public health ordinance was established yesterday that will still require mask wearing. The governor's executive order specifically prohibits cities and counties from doing that. But Austin's City Council and health authority found a loophole that they think allows them to. So no word yet on how the governor or other cities and counties will respond.
MARTIN: What about schools? How does this change affect schools?
SELF-WALBRICK: The Texas Education Agency has allowed school boards to decide what works best for their districts. We've seen a handful that have ruled that masks will no longer be required. But most districts are keeping their current rules in place through the spring.
MARTIN: Governor Abbott made his announcement last week at a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, which is where you are. I heard you checked in on how that restaurant is planning to respond to the new policy. What'd you learn?
SELF-WALBRICK: I did. So owner Rudy Rosales told me yesterday that when he agreed to host the governor last week at his restaurant, Montelongo's, he did not know exactly what the governor was there to announce. He had expected business capacity limits to be lifted, but he was just as surprised as everyone when the governor ended the mask mandate. Rosales has decided not to change how he does business. So he's keeping his restaurant at about 50% capacity and will continue to require employees and customers to wear masks.
RUDY ROSALES: The governor said it's up to each individual business and each person to take their own responsibility for their health.
SELF-WALBRICK: So, really, this variety of responses is exactly what the governor intended with this new order.
MARTIN: Sarah Self-Walbrick of Texas Tech Public Media. Sarah, thanks.
SELF-WALBRICK: Thank you.
MARTIN: Rosales is not alone in his decision to require face masks at his business. Arnaldo Richards and his wife Janice (ph) opened a Mexican restaurant called Picos 37 years ago this week in Houston. And they, too, are keeping the same safety requirements already in place at their restaurant, which includes face masks. But the backlash has gotten ugly. Arnaldo Richards is on the line with us now. Thanks so much for joining us.
ARNALDO RICHARDS: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Good morning. Can you explain your decision to keep requiring customers and your staff to wear masks?
RICHARDS: Well, I mean, the decision was very easy. I mean, we understand that - I mean, we're not out of the woods. And we need to continue to protect my employees and my customers. And there was no - I mean, there was not even a second thought. I mean, this is - we're still in the pandemic. The mortality rate is still high and the hospitalizations are still high. And we're not on the percentages that we need to be to stop this. So we made the decision immediately when we heard the governor that was giving us the option to wear the mask or not. And we got together with our employees and everybody, you know, was supporting us. And the community supported us in a big way.
MARTIN: And I understand that you do have a lot of community support, but there has been a subset of the population, your customers, who have been aggressive in their backlash. Can you explain what's happened?
RICHARDS: Well, we haven't had any incidents at the restaurant, but in social media, we have had some comments. And, you know, they might not even be our customers. They're just people trying to make a point, I mean, people always just talking about - you know, and always hitting us with the stuff with immigration. I mean, they're going to report us to immigration or the government has the power to send ICE to check our green cards, you know, so we shouldn't go against his wishes. But I don't think - you know, we're not going against his wishes. I mean, Greg Abbott just basically is trying to open up the economy, which I think is great. I mean, everybody needs jobs. The economy needs to get going. But it has to measures on it (ph). So, you know, by giving us this responsibility to the citizens and to the business owners, I mean, we all should understand and look at the data and see what's really still happening and make good decisions.
MARTIN: Does that...
RICHARDS: I mean, to me, I mean, the masks works. I mean, we've been doing this since March 17 since all this started, and we're not going to go back on it. I mean, we still need to have the percentages. I mean, the CDC is talking about that it's still going to take about 180 days to vaccinate 70%, 75% of the population. And when we get to those numbers, maybe then, you know, we'll reconsider our position.
MARTIN: You call it a personal responsibility. This is what the governor has described it as for each business owner to make that decision. Does the responsibility feel like a burden?
RICHARDS: No, not at all. I mean, this is what we need to do as a community. I mean, we all need to come together and understand that this is still - that we still have a problem and that we need to be conscientious and we need to be kind to people. I mean, we need to protect everyone. We need to to protect each other.
MARTIN: What do you say to patrons who don't wear a mask or maybe most of them don't even try to push it?
RICHARDS: Well, I mean, we had had one or two incidents even before this mandate, you know, ended today. But it's just people trying to make a point. And, you know, like I tell people, I mean, just be kind. I mean, be kind to people because, I mean, it only takes you 30 to 40 seconds to reach your table. And once you reach your table, I mean, you're just going to - you're going to be able to take off the mask because you cannot eat and drink with the mask. And when you get up and you are in common areas, just wear the mask. And it's just - it's an act of kindness. And, you know, if you're not willing to do that, I don't know what we can tell them. In my restaurant, I mean, if you're not going to wear the mask, you're not going to be able to come in.
MARTIN: Arnaldo Richards of Picos Restaurant in Houston, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. We appreciate it.
RICHARDS: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.