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COVID-19

Austin Businesses Say They're Losing A Way To Protect Staff As Abbott Rescinds Mask Mandate

People stand outside a brewery in Austin in May shortly after Gov. Greg Abbott began allowing businesses to reopen with capacity limits during the pandemic. Abbott is lifting mandatory capacity limits and his statewide mask mandate next Wednesday.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
People stand outside a brewery in Austin in May shortly after Gov. Greg Abbott began allowing businesses to reopen with capacity limits during the pandemic. Abbott is lifting mandatory capacity limits and his statewide mask mandate next Wednesday.

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Before there was a mask mandate in Texas, Emily Hoover said it wasn’t easy to get people to put a mask on in her store.

Hoover, the owner of Feathers Boutique Vintage, said early on in the pandemic she required masks. But she noticed she was getting a lot of pushback.

“I had a really hard time as a business on South Congress getting people to comply,” she said. “A lot of people called me and messaged me telling me to get rid of it and that they wouldn’t shop with me as long as I had a mask mandate.”

But last summer, Hoover said, things got easier when Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide order requiring people to wear masks in public spaces. She said it was easier to tell people that they would be breaking a state rule, as opposed to her store policy.

Now, Hoover worries things could get difficult again.

On Tuesday, Abbott announced he will rescind the statewide mask order starting next Wednesday. He also announced he will lift all COVID restrictions for businesses. He said many Texans have already "mastered" how to follow safety standards and protect themselves from the virus.

“Texans have wrestled and they have learned best how to conduct their own lives,” Abbott said during an event in Lubbock. “People and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.”

We need help with messaging so that we can protect ourselves, instead of fighting the general public and trying to convince them that our lives are valuable and they should wear a mask to protect us.
Michael Fojtasek

But Hoover said removing the mask mandate could make it more difficult for businesses to enforce their own mask rules.

“It’s going to be harder for those of us who want it to stay to have anything to stand on,” she said.

Many local business owners and members of Austin’s hospitality workforce say they are also deeply concerned about the message Abbott’s order sends.

Michael Fojtasek, who owns the restaurant Olamaie, said Abbott has “put the responsibility of protecting [workers] on business owners” in the state. He said the timing is especially concerning because people who work in public spaces like restaurants, bars and venues aren’t at the front of the line to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

He said it’s going to be hard for him to protect himself and his staff “if the general public thinks it’s okay to go anywhere without a mask” next week.

“We need help with messaging so that we can protect ourselves, instead of fighting the general public and trying to convince them that our lives are valuable and they should wear a mask to protect us,” he said.

People who work events in Austin are also concerned about Abbott’s decision to remove capacity restrictions for venues.

Santiago Dietche manages a local DJ and event company called Dart Collective. He said, as it is, larger venues have been hosting more than 100 people for events because many venues have a capacity of up to 400.

“I definitely have felt unsafe at more than 50% of these events,” he said. “But the 25 to 50% rule helped us maintain at least some semblance of distance.”

Dietche said eliminating mask requirements and bumping up to full capacity is just going to make things less safe for him and other DJs and musicians at his company. He said Texas is already a “destination” for larger events because the state has had more relaxed restrictions than other states.

“The addition of it now being this beam of the only state in the entire union that is allowing 100% capacity at venues again and no restrictions whatsoever for businesses — I think it’s all but obvious that there are going to be more people flocking into Texas,” Dietche said.

Got a tip? Email Ashley Lopez at alopez@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.

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