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Texas Governor's Decision To Lift Mask Mandate Draws Strong Reactions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When Texas Governor Greg Abbott lifted coronavirus restrictions, he made the announcement in a restaurant. The governor is ending a mask mandate and encouraging businesses to return to 100% capacity. How does that plan look to the staff at a restaurant the governor did not visit?

That's where Houston Public Media's Katie Watkins begins her report.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL'S BAHR AMBIENCE)

KATIE WATKINS, BYLINE: At Neil’s Bahr in Houston's East Downtown neighborhood, a sign on the door reads, no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service. But bartender Kristen Farmer worries the end of the statewide mask mandate may make that harder to enforce.

KRISTEN FARMER: Even prior to this, it was difficult sometimes to get customers to wear masks. So going forward, I feel like it's going to be moreso.

WATKINS: Under Governor Greg Abbott's new order, businesses can still enact their own mask requirements and safety protocols. The bar Farmer works at will still require masks and social distancing. But she fears the governor's message may further embolden anti-maskers and put people like herself who haven't been vaccinated at risk.

FARMER: We're obviously in a position where the vaccine isn't available to us but are trying to still work. So it would be cool if more people were vaccinated before we started opening up everything and not taking just the basic steps.

WATKINS: Currently, just 7% of people living in Texas are fully vaccinated. Still, some praise the governor's decision to allow businesses to operate at full capacity.

MELISSA STEWART: That is going to be tremendous and very, very necessary for our industry.

WATKINS: That's Melissa Stewart with the Greater Houston Restaurant Association. She says a statewide mask mandate was helpful.

STEWART: When it was statewide and everybody had to do it, it was easier for staff members, frankly, to enforce because it wasn't a question.

WATKINS: That's why restaurant owner Alex Brennan-Martin says he's making masks mandatory for employees but not for customers, though strongly encouraged.

ALEX BRENNAN-MARTIN: It's become contentious. And putting our employees, our managers, myself in the position of enforcing those regulations, especially on an issue that seems to be just about 50-50 when you talk to folks and is highly emotionally charged is a difficult thing to ask your employees and management to do.

WATKINS: Houston has recorded all four major COVID-19 variants. And medical professionals warn that loosening restrictions now will set back recovery efforts. Dr. Joseph Varon is the chief medical officer at United Memorial Medical Center. His main concern is another spike in hospitalizations.

JOSEPH VARON: The moment I heard about this information that the governor was saying, I immediately called for a meeting here in the hospital. And talking to the rest of the leaders of the hospital, we made some initial plans as to what we're going to do because we think we're going to have a large number of patients come in because of this do-not-wear-a-mask (laughter) request by the governor.

WATKINS: He says these plans include stocking up on more PPE, having more nursing personnel and even getting additional ventilators. Other frontline health care workers like ICU nurse Ivette Palomeque share his concern.

IVETTE PALOMEQUE: COVID is nowhere near over. There's still people in the ICUs, like, today that are dying, that'll die tomorrow, that'll die the next day, the next day, weeks and weeks to come still because of COVID.

WATKINS: She's worried about the extra physical and mental toll this decision will take on her colleagues who have already been caring for a never-ending stream of COVID patients for nearly a year. For NPR News, I'm Katie Watkins in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.