Essential workers protest over Abbott’s decision to lift mask mandate

Governor Greg Abbott has caught a lot of heat over his plans to totally repeal the mask mandate in Texas, and get rid of capacity limits on businesses. Monday Central Texas essential workers and local activists will add their voices, saying "not so fast" to Abbott’s order. 

Groups including the Restaurant Organizing Project, Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, Austin Mutual Aid and the Texas Amplified Sound Coalition are gathering to voice concerns that in addition to being exposed to the COVID virus itself, workers will take the brunt of abuse and even violence from customers refusing to adhere to mask policies put in place by individual stores and restaurants. 

Organizers of the rally say the lifting of the mask mandate underscores why essential workers need to be vaccinated now. 

In an interview Sunday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick defended Gov. Abbott’s move, saying, "This isn't breaking the mold, we are joining other states on this policy and one of the reasons, this was well thought through by the governor. We believe ... by early to mid-April everyone over 65 will have had a chance to have a vaccination, we are at about 50 percent or under that."



On March 3 at a news conference in Lubbock, Governor Abbott announced he was issuing an executive order lifting the statewide mask mandate and that effective Wednesday, March 10 at 12:01 a.m. all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100%.

"With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus," said Governor Abbott. "We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans."

Abbott noted that "COVID-19 has not disappeared" but he says "it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations, and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed."

The lifting of the mandates is not a surprise as Abbott hinted in recent days that he would be doing so as he faced sharp criticism from some Republicans over his use of executive orders to issue statewide pandemic restrictions.

Gov. Abbott's mask order was put in place on July 2 during a spike in coronavirus cases in the state. Cases dropped sharply under the order but began to rise again after Labor Day and with the easing of some restrictions on restaurants and bars.



The governor's decision is a move that isn't sitting well with Austin-Travis County leaders. "Nearly unanimous health experts tell us that masking is the best tool we have to stop this virus, to open up schools to all kids in person, to keep businesses open," said Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

Austin Public Health has continued to push for masking to carry on, one year into the pandemic. "I think it's reckless for bars to be open in the first place. Especially now when we've got increasing concern about variants," said Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin Public Health. Dr. Escott says he is extremely concerned about young people going out in the masses, possibly with no masks.

The Austin ISD teachers and employees union also believes the governor pulled the plug too early. "When we have families, 80 percent of them have chosen to stay home, to stay virtual in their instruction, we know this city values safety," said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin.

Although the mandate is lifted, private businesses can still choose what they want to do. H-E-B has announced shoppers are still expected to wear masks while in stores. The chain also will still require all its employees and vendors to wear masks while at work. 

Many businesses in the Austin area are also keeping the requirement for customers to wear masks.

In Hays County, Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra called the governor's decision to lift the mask mandate "ambitious, but premature and reckless."