Houston made national news once again, but this time, it’s for Governor Abbott’s decision to rescind all Covid restrictions.
On Tuesday, Abbott announced that effective March 10, there will no longer be state-mandated mask requirements. At the same time, all businesses in Texas will be allowed to open to 100% occupancy. Both decisions return Texas to pre-Covid normalcy.
The announcement has come with mixed responses. Many Texans are breathing a sigh of relief, feeling it’s long past time to re-open restaurants, bars, and businesses to full capacity. The economy, once strong under former President Trump, suffered greatly as a result of Covid, with unemployment rising to 14.8 percent in April, 2020, following the country’s shutdown in an effort to “flatten the curve.”
The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey tracked pandemic recession data and reported that 24 million families had trouble putting food on the table, 13 million were unable to pay their rent, and 81 million struggled to meet basic household expenses. Demographically, minority groups were hardest hit. Inequities in education, employment, healthcare and housing have all played a part in increased hardship for Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Immigrant households.
Businesses have taken a blow, as well. According to the most recent SCORE report, just 34 percent of small businesses reported turning a profit in 2020, compared to 55 percent at the same point in 2019. Again, minority businesses were hit the hardest, with fewer resources to secure lines of credit and lack of knowledge regarding pursuing the PPP loan, a crucial funding source for most small businesses across the nation.
Abbot’s decision to reopen was in large part based on his desire to save the businesses who have managed to lurch along though a sluggish economy and multiple restrictions and requirements, including adding hand sanitizing stations, requiring staff to wear masks and wash hands between customers, adding pay stations and contactless pay procedures, and of course restricting occupancy. Those who couldn’t keep up have shuttered their doors, causing Houston to lose some longtime staples of the restaurant community, including chains like Black Walnut Café and local eateries like Azuma and The Tasting Room in Uptown Park. In fact, over 10,000 Houston restaurants have closed permanently due to Covid, according to the Texas Restaurant Association.
However, those opposed to Abbott’s decision cite the continued Covid infection rate and death count as reason enough to wear masks and prohibit crowded restaurants and bars. In Texas alone, the CDC reports 2.67 million infections and 44,353 deaths as of March 3, 2021. Fort Bend County reports 562 deaths as a result of Covid.
Only about 17 percent of Texans are fully vaccinated at this time, and the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that it takes a population of 70% vaccinated to reach herd immunity. Only one in five of those 65 and older statewide have been fully vaccinated, according to Texas Health and Human Services. As a result, many Texans are leery of relinquishing masks and social distancing guidelines, which are still strongly urged by the CDC.
According to Fox News coverage of the Abbott decision, “The executive order allows a county judge to implement COVID-19 mitigation strategies if hospitalizations rise above 15% of the hospital bed capacity in any region for 7 consecutive days.”
“However, no one is allowed to be jailed for not following county orders,” Abbott said, “nor can penalties be imposed for failure to wear a face mask.”