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Austin-Travis County Leaders Consider Legal Options After Governor Lifts COVID-19 Safety Protocols

Travis County Judge Andy Brown speaks at the test run of a mass vaccination site at the Circuit of the Americas on Saturday.
Julia Reihs
Travis County Judge Andy Brown speaks at the test run of a mass vaccination site at the Circuit of the Americas on Saturday.

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Austin and Travis County leaders are urging people to continue wearing face coverings after Gov. Greg Abbott announced he's lifting the statewide mask mandate.

During a news conference Wednesday morning, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the governor has gone back on the promise he made at the start of the pandemic to follow science and COVID-19 data.

“Masking is the best tool we have to stop this virus, to open up schools to all kids in person, to keep businesses open," Adler said. “And now the governor’s action has put those priorities at risk.”

Travis County Judge Andy Brown said he's working with the County Attorney's Office to determine what legal options they have to mandate mask wearing locally.

When asked about bars, Brown said he would consider safety measures like potentially adjusting the hours of alcohol sales if the county sees unsafe practices, like packed bars with no social distancing or mask wearing.

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

On Tuesday, Abbott announced he would be rescinding orders that capped occupancy for businesses and required Texans to wear masks in public. Starting next Wednesday, the mask requirement will no longer be in effect and all businesses will be able to operate at 100% capacity.

Adler said this creates ambiguity where none should exist. He asked that everyone keep wearing masks to protect each other.

“Just because the governor says it can’t be mandated, doesn’t mean we don’t need to wear our masks," he said.

Abbott's order allows businesses to set their own capacity limits and require face masks if they choose.

Adler expressed concern for front-line workers who don’t fall under the 1A or 1B vaccine priority groups. Brown said Central Texas leaders are working as quickly as possible to scale up vaccine distribution, mentioning another mass vaccine event at Circuit of the Americas this weekend. He expects to ramp up vaccine distribution from 3,000 doses last week to 10,000 this week.

“With just over 5% of our community vaccinated, this is no time to be lifting the mask ordinance,” Brown said. “We are not declaring victory on the pandemic; we are not over the pandemic. We need to keep working together to vaccinate our entire population.”

Brown said the area will not reach herd immunity until 80% of the community is fully vaccinated. He said people should continue wearing masks until the area reaches that goal.

"The last thing any of us want is a third surge — and that would make it harder to vaccinate people. That would make it harder for businesses to survive," Brown said.

While coronavirus cases and hospital admissions are down, Dr. Jose Ayala from St. David’s Hospital said the risk of catching COVID-19 remains high. He said another threat the community faces is having new variants pop up and then spreading among the population.

Ayala called continuing to wear masks “a small price to pay” in order to get ahead of the virus.

Watch the video from the news conference below:

Masks in Texas: Austin leaders speak after Gov. Abbott lifts mandate amid COVID-19 | KVUE

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Dani Matias is a former producer and fill-in host for KUT's Morning Edition show.
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