Capital highlights: Entities will continue requiring masks after mandate ends
While Gov. Gregg Abbott has lifted the statewide mandate to wear a mask in public and allowed all businesses to operate at full capacity, many businesses, schools and other entities say they will continue to require masks be worn. Abbott issued the order last week, effective March 10.
“With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus,” Abbott said. “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent.” He urged Texans to take responsibility for themselves when it comes to wearing masks and following other health safety practices.
Political leaders in several of the state’s largest cities criticized the decision. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted, asking (and answering for himself) whether Abbott’s move was “an attempt to deflect from the winter storm systemwide state leadership failure. Yes.” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg urged residents to join him in continuing to wear a mask, a sentiment echoed by Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.
Meanwhile, the Texas Education Agency revised its health guidance policies, saying that “local school boards have full authority to determine their local mask policy.” Many of the state’s college campuses announced they would continue to require that masks be worn, including The University of Texas, the Texas A&M University System, Texas Tech, Southern Methodist University and others.
Several large retailers announced they would continue to require customers to wear masks, including Walmart, Target, Costco and Whole Foods. Grocery retailer H-E-B will not require masks for customers but will “strongly encourage” they be worn. Employees will continue to wear masks.
In the wake of Abbott’s announcement, the Texas Supreme Court removed requirements that most court proceedings in the state be held remotely and gave judges the authority to require masks and social distancing. It encouraged judges to hold trials remotely. Three justices dissented.
Texas getting more than 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses this week
More than 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses are shipping this week to providers across the state, a significant increase from previous weeks. That’s largely due to nearly a quarter-million doses of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine coming to Texas. The single-dose vaccine began shipping last week. As of Sunday, more than 4.2 million Texans had received at least one dose and 2.319 million were fully vaccinated. That means about 22 percent of the state’s population has gotten at least one dose. Teachers and school staff have been added to the list of those eligible for one of the three vaccines being offered.
COVID-19 cases drop, but deaths increase in past week
The number of new COVID-19 cases reported in Texas in the past week dropped to 43,328, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University of Medicine. That’s down 22 percent from the previous week and down nearly 73 percent from the record high of 158,922 recorded the week of Jan. 10. However, recorded deaths in Texas rose to 1,730, up 17 percent from the previous week. Hospitalizations for lab-confirmed COVID-19 patients totaled 4,921, down from the record high of more than 14,000 during the week of Jan. 11.
More heads roll in wake of widespread blackouts during winter storm
As state and federal investigations continue into the massive blackouts during the Valentine’s Day winter storm, leaders of both the Public Utility Commission and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas left their positions. DeAnn Walker, chairman of the PUC, resigned March 1 and was replaced by fellow PUC member Arthur D’Andrea. Abbott will appoint someone to fill D’Andrea’s position. ERCOT’s CEO Bill Magness was fired a few days later by his board, which has lost nearly half its members to resignations. Magness, whose annual salary was at least $800,000, soon said he would not seek or accept severance pay, which would have been equivalent to a year’s pay, according to the Texas Tribune.
School districts not penalized for high absences, remote learning
The Texas Education Agency announced last week that it will “hold harmless” school districts that have seen attendance declines because of the pandemic, as long as they at least maintain current levels of in-school learning. Districts will be funded on attendance projections made before the pandemic, allowing them to retain teachers who might have faced layoffs because of lower enrollment. The state’s top leaders announced their support for the hold-harmless provision in a March 4 news release.
Teens urged to buckle up
Car wrecks are the leading cause of death among teenagers, and 41% of Texas teen drivers killed in 2019 weren’t wearing a seat belt. That’s why the Texas Department of Transportation is conducting a “Teen Click It or Ticket” campaign in March. TxDOT is sending out safety messages via social media, TV, radio and digital media.
“Due to their limited driving experience, teens are far more susceptible to being in a crash,” said TxDOT Executive Director James Bass. “Far too many of these crashes are deadly because of the failure to buckle up. Wearing a seat belt is the single most effective thing you can do to protect yourself in a crash. Click it and be safe.”
Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.