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Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Late last month, after Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley renewed the county mask order and told me he hoped he’d be in a position to lift it by July 4, I doubted that many Texans would wait that long.
Less than a week later, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the “reopening of Texas” by lifting state capacity limits on businesses and the masking requirement, effective March 10. Whitley wasted no time in following suit, canceling the county mask mandate effective immediately.
Whitley’s move may have been in part because Abbott removed local authorities’ ability to penalize mask or capacity-limit violators; however, Abbott’s order allows local authorities’ ability to impose some restrictions when the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients exceeds 15 percent of total hospital capacity.
Of course, Texas is hardly the first state to lift its face covering requirement or “open up” during the pandemic, although it is the most populous to do so.
And the timing, just after the state’s weather emergency delayed a significant number of vaccine shots, is not optimal.
But the fear that Abbott’s move will somehow transform Texas into the Wild West overnight, with maskless people crowding into enclosed spaces and coughing all over one another, seems hyperbolic.
It’s worth noting, first, that the governor’s order strongly encourages people to continue distancing and wearing face coverings. It just no longer demands they do so under penalty of law.
Some people see that “request” as toothless, not worth the paper it’s written on. For others, the difference between being told and being asked is a significant one, and it may not change much of their behavior at all.
Social media is certainly a self-selecting tool, but if it’s any barometer for public sentiment, it seems that most people are still willing to mask and distance for the near term, even if just out of courtesy.
While there are certainly some businesses excited to open at full capacity (and some who have skirted rules for months), the prevailing community response seems to favor caution.
“The business community is still processing recent announcements,” said Brandom Gengelbach, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, in an email.
“At this point, most businesses are continuing current regulations and guidelines while evaluating changes in policies based on the Governor’s announcement. We want our businesses to feel confident and comfortable in the decisions they make,” he added.
And right now, it seems that businesses (and patrons) are confident and comfortable in doing what they’ve been doing.
That’s probably a good thing; at least it makes sense.
After all, it took months for people to make mask-wearing and distancing a habit; it took months for businesses to learn how to operate in an environment that would both follow mandates and satisfy customers.
It will certainly take some time for those habits and innovations to be reversed, especially if most people are erring on the side of caution.
A reversal will occur as a significant and increasing number of people are gaining immunity, either through the vaccine or the virus itself.
We also have different information today about things such as mask use.
Initially, masks were about protecting others, but even the CDC has updated information on its website citing studies that suggest masks also may provide protection to the wearer.
That may not compel people to wear one, but if you are afraid of unmasked people breathing near you, your decision to wear one should provide some comfort.
Whether Abbott and Whitley’s orders bring you frustration or joy, the early returns seem to suggest that the way most Texans behave is not going to change overnight, and maybe not for a while.
Maybe Texans will wait until July Fourth to celebrate mask independence.