Houston restaurants can return to 100 percent capacity effective next Wednesday, March 10, Governor Greg Abbott announced during a press conference on Tuesday. The announcement, that the state was lifting nearly all restrictions on COVID-19 social distancing, took place, notably, on Texas Independence Day, at Montelongo’s, a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, nearly a year to the date that first coronavirus case was confirmed in Texas.
“It is now time to open Texas 100 percent,” Abbott said to a crowd of diners that included members of Lubbock’s Chamber of Commerce. Touting Texas’s strong economy, even during the crisis of the past year. Abbott said, “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 all capacity restrictions from all business, including restaurants, as well as bars, which have been closed in Harris 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% of total hospitalizations over a 7-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 Houston, that policy triggered a reduction of indoor capacity at restaurants to 50 percent in early January. Those restrictions were only recently lifted, bringing indoor capacity back to 75 percent, on February 23.
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 throughout the state have been slowly declining since the holiday season, experts have warned that loosening restrictions now could be catastrophic. In a White House briefing on March 1, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said that a fourth wave is possible if states roll back restrictions.
“With these statistics, I am really worried about more states rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from Covid-19,” she said. “Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained.”
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. On March 1, the Houston Chronicle reported that Houston was the first US city to have a case of every major variant of the coronavirus.
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 spread of new mutations.
This week, Houston expanded it vaccination waitlist to include anyone over the age of 65, plus people age 16 and up with medical conditions that put them at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Texas still does not consider restaurant employees or other food service workers a priority category for receiving the vaccine.