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While Gov. Gregg Abbott has lifted the statewide mandate to wear a mask in public and allowed all businesses to operate at full capacity, many businesses, schools and other entities say they will continue to require that masks be worn. Abbott issued the order last week, effective March 10.
“With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus,” Abbott said. “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent.” He urged Texans to take responsibility for themselves when it comes to wearing masks and following other health safety practices.
Political leaders in several of the state’s largest cities criticized the decision. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted, asking (and answering for himself) whether Abbott’s move was “an attempt to deflect from the winter storm systemwide state leadership failure. Yes.” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg urged residents to join him in continuing to wear a mask, a sentiment echoed by Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.
Meanwhile, the Texas Education Agency revised its health guidance policies, saying that “local school boards have full authority to determine their local mask policy.” Many of the state’s college campuses announced they would continue to require that masks be worn, including The University of Texas, the Texas A&M University System, Texas Tech, Southern Methodist University and others.
Several large retailers announced they would continue to require customers to wear masks, including Walmart, Target, Costco and Whole Foods. Grocery retailer H-E-B will “strongly encourage” they be worn, according to a company statement, and employees will continue to wear masks. HEB president Scott McClelland told the Houston Chronicle that antagonistic customers have caused nearly 2,000 in-store incidents regarding masks at Houston stores alone. He said customers not wearing a mask would be asked to do so, and an employee would offer them a mask if they didn’t have one. Store employees will not escalate the situation if a customer refuses, he said.
In the wake of Abbott’s announcement, the Texas Supreme Court removed requirements that most court proceedings in the state be held remotely and gave judges the authority to require masks and social distancing. It encouraged judges to hold trials remotely. Three justices dissented.
Texas getting more than 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses this week
More than 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses are shipping this week to providers across the state, a significant increase from previous weeks. That’s largely due to nearly a quarter-million doses of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine coming to Texas. The single-dose vaccine began shipping last week. As of Sunday, more than 4.2 million Texans had received at least one dose and 2.319 million were fully vaccinated. That means about 22 percent of the state’s population has gotten at least one dose. Teachers and school staff have been added to the list of those eligible for one of the three vaccines being offered.
More heads roll in wake of widespread blackouts during winter storm
As state and federal investigations continue into the massive blackouts during the Valentine’s Day winter storm, leaders of both the Public Utility Commission and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas left their positions. DeAnn Walker, chairman of the PUC, resigned on March 1 and was replaced by fellow PUC member Arthur D’Andrea. Abbott will appoint someone to fill D’Andrea’s position. ERCOT’s CEO Bill Magness was fired a few days later by his board, which has lost nearly half its members to resignations. Magness, whose annual salary was at least $800,000, soon said he would not seek or accept severance pay, which would have been equivalent to a year’s pay, according to the Texas Tribune.
School districts not penalized for high absences
The Texas Education Agency announced last week that it will “hold harmless” school districts that have seen attendance declines because of the pandemic, as long as they at least maintain current levels of in-school learning. Districts will be funded on attendance projections made before the pandemic, allowing them to retain teachers who might have faced layoffs because of lower enrollment. The state’s top leaders announced their support for the hold-harmless provision in a March 4 press release.