Texas has lifted nearly all the restrictions on dining capacity and social distancing, meaning restaurants in North Texas can return to full capacity, and bars can reopen at 100 percent capacity, effective next Wednesday, March 10.
Gov. Greg Abbott made the announcement during a press conference on Tuesday, Texas Independence Day, nearly a year to the date that first coronavirus case was confirmed in Texas.
Touting the strength of the Texas economy even during the lockdown, Abbott told a group of diners and associates at Montelongo’s, a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, “It is now time to open Texas 100 percent. Everyone who wants to work should have that opportunity, and every business that wants to reopen should be open.”
The new order effectively rescinds almost all of Abbott’s COVID-related executive orders from the past year. It removes capacity restrictions from all business, including restaurants, as well as bars, which have been closed in Dallas County since June of 2020. It also removes the statewide mask mandate, an announcement that drew cheers from the crowd gathered at the restaurant.
The announcement leaves in place a policy implemented by Abbott in October that stated that in regions of Texas where COVID-19 cases rise above 15 percent of total hospitalizations over a seven-day period, local governments in that region can implement COVID mitigation strategies, such as requiring masks and enforcing decreased capacity limits. However, Abbott said, “Under no circumstance can a county judge jail anyone for not following COVID orders,” and that no penalties can be imposed for failing to wear a face mask under those conditions.
In early December, Dallas County restaurants were required to decrease indoor capacity to 50 percent as part of that plan. Those restrictions were finally lifted, bringing indoor capacity back to 75 percent, on February 17.
Abbott stressed the importance of personal responsibility in continuing to combat the disease.
“COVID has not, like, suddenly disappeared,” he said. “But it is clear that state mandates are no longer needed. Removing state mandates does not end personal responsibility. Personal vigilance is still needed to contain COVID.”
Abbott also said private business are free to implement their own covid mitigation measures, such as requiring masks and reducing capacity, but that the state will no longer enforce these rules.
While coronavirus cases in the Dallas area have been slowly declining since the holiday season, experts have warned against loosening statewide restrictions, especially with new, more contagious variations appearing in Texas.
In a February interview with Propublica, Caitlin Rivers, a computational epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, cautioned states against reopening measures.
“Now is not the time to relax,” she said. “When you create the same conditions that allowed the last surge, you should expect the same results.”
New mutations of the disease, many of which are more contagious that the original strain that infected Americans last year, are of particular concern right now. As of late February, only about 5 percent of Texans had been vaccinated, and it is not yet clear how effective the current vaccines are at preventing the new mutations. Texas still does not consider restaurant employees or other food service workers a priority category for receiving the vaccine.