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Thursday, May 30, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Texans Leery of Governor’s Repeal of Mask Order

Republican Greg Abbott is facing widespread criticism that he should have waited until more Texans are vaccinated to lift coronavirus restrictions.

(CN) — Raul Osornio, 61, is careful with his health. Every day he eats 20 almonds, a peach or a pear, blueberries and salad. He plays tennis and takes walks around his Houston consignment shop.

A woman recently entered his shop without a mask and he offered her one from a box he keeps in his desk. She objected, telling him, "No one at my church wears a mask."

Osornio said he gets angry with mask skeptics because a few months ago he caught Covid-19 and it attacked his kidneys.

He isolated himself in a room of his home. His wife set his meals outside the door and when he was done eating he sanitized his plate and utensils and put them back in the hallway.

He put his dirty clothes in plastic bags and set them out so his wife did not have to touch them when putting them in the washing machine.

Wracked with a fever and chills, he called for his wife.

"I said, 'Baby I'm sorry. I tried. But I'm not going to make it. Sorry.' And she was crying," he said in an interview.

Raul Osornio, owner of Portros Resale Shop in Houston, holds up a box of masks he keeps under his desk for customers on Friday, March 5, 2021. (Courthouse News photo/Cameron Langford)

He thinks Texas Governor Greg Abbott's decision, effective March 10, to lift his order requiring people to wear masks in public places is foolish.

"It's a crazy idea because we still have Covid-19," Osornio said.

Abbott is facing criticism from local Democratic officials and medical experts who say the Republican governor opted to do away with all coronavirus restrictions on businesses and his mask-up order to appease his base, and distract from the fallout of the statewide power outages triggered last month by freezing temperatures from Winter Storm Uri that left millions shivering in their homes, with an untold number dying from hypothermia.

It's the busy season for Boyd's One Stop, as people flock to the seafood market and bait shop near the Texas City Dike, a 4-mile levee that juts into Galveston Bay, for crawfish its owner drives to Louisiana each day to get directly from a "crawfish farmer."

A Boyd's employee named Jennie said management has decided they won't make customers wear masks.

"Once they release this mask wearing thing I'm sure a lot of people won't be wearing them, but I'm sure there will be more people getting sick," she said on the phone, declining to give her last name.

As for herself, she said, she will keep wearing them because she suffers from bronchitis. "Really since all this is going on I really don't go in a lot of places like Walmart where there's a lot of people. I just don't...I don't want to get sick," she said.

Ken Stueart, 57, is proud none of the staff or the 100 students at the HUB Houston, which runs a high school and life-skills and employment-preparation classes for intellectually disabled teens and adults up to age 32, has contracted Covid-19.

Stueart teaches at the school. He said the staff's methodical efforts to keep the virus at bay have worked. Students have to fill out daily health questionnaires online and have their temperatures checked twice a day.

For their protection, students are assigned to five-person cohorts and do not mingle with other cohorts. Each group has a station equipped with hand sanitizer, masks and gloves.

Kipp Baxter, HUB Houston's director of development, said before students were brought back for in-person learning in September, administrators feared masks might be a problem.

"Neurodiverse individuals sometimes don't like things on their face, or things touching them," she said by phone. "These young people have been amazing about doing it because they understand they are not only protecting themselves, they are protecting others and we're all about community."

After Abbott’s announcement, the school said all campus visitors and students will still have to wear masks.

A sign requiring make is seen near diners eating at a restaurant on the River Walk, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in San Antonio. Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas is lifting a mask mandate and lifting business capacity limits next week. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Though Stueart has hypertension, a risk factor for Covid-19 complications, he said he had started going out to dinner about two or three times a week and felt at ease because all service staff were in masks.

"But now with [Abbott] opening up to 100% I don't feel comfortable even going into restaurants. And I'll probably go back to the mentality of like cleaning my vegetables," he said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner blasted Abbott in a City Council meeting Wednesday.

"Over 90% of Texans have yet to be fully vaccinated and every day we are reporting more cases...He's doing something that will lead to the numbers going up ... This roller coaster is just crazy," Turner said.

Abbott’s lifting of the mask mandate comes as tourism-dependent small towns in parts of Far West Texas are gearing up for a huge influx of spring break travelers.

Officials at Big Bend National Park, which is already seeing record-high visitation in from pandemic-weary city dwellers, are reminding people that masks will still be required at the federal park’s facilities and even on crowded trails when social distancing isn’t possible.

For the hotels, restaurants and other businesses that serve those travelers, the governor’s nixing of capacity limits could mean more revenue this year.

But some business owners are still nervous, either about greater risks of the virus spreading or about angering customers if they continue to require masks, which the governor’s order allows.

“The majority were like, probably should have waited until after the Easter holiday,” said Robert Alvarez, head of the local Brewster County Tourism Council. “It’s great that he wants to open up, but man, right at spring break when people are going to be traveling and doing things, that timing is what everybody is concerned about.”

Vaccination efforts have only recently begun in some of the region’s small towns, and Alvarez said business owners have been having conversations with staff about whether they should keep their own mask rules in place.

“The sentiment from the workers…they’re like nah, we want the masks in place,” he said.

Mike Micallef is glad that he’ll soon be able to fully reopen his popular Reata Restaurant in the Big Bend town of Alpine. But were it up to him, he said, he would have kept the mask mandate in place while relaxing the capacity limits.

Most of his customers’ complaints, he said, have stemmed from things like the state limiting restaurants to 10 people per table.

“We’ve got people that want to have a birthday party with 15 people at the table, they’re all family members, they all know what they’re getting themselves into,” he said.

Micallef said the tricky part for restaurants after the governor’s latest move will be trying to please everybody who walks in the door.

“If you say anything, you’re going to make 50% of the people happy and 50% of the people pissed off at you,” Micallef said.

Covid-19 has killed than 44,000 Texans.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday revised a Covid-19 emergency order, lifting restrictions that most proceedings be held remotely, while encouraging courts to continue operating remotely.

It also gave judges authority to mandate masks and social distancing in their courtrooms and ended prohibitions on in-person municipal and justice court hearings. With the order, those types of courts are now authorized to hold trials remotely.

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