An important coronavirus update out of Texas today points to a broader dynamic that will increasingly play out elsewhere in the country as we continue to get closer to the end of the pandemic. As of today, March 10, Texas has lifted its statewide coronavirus face mask mandate, which has garnered significant media coverage amid speculation from public health experts that such rollbacks of coronavirus-related safety measures are too much, too soon, when more gradual and metrics-based lifting of the safety measures is preferred.
Here’s the thing, though — just because the governor of a state like Texas says nobody has to wear a face mask anymore, doesn’t mean you can now go mask-free from one corner of that state to the other. All that happened in Texas is a lifting of these requirements at the state level, whereas at the local level the story is not so simple. Want to shop inside a Kroger or Target store in Texas? Guess what: You still have to wear a face mask inside.
This is another reason why public health experts frowned upon the Texas governor’s decision — it sets up a potential conflict among people who think they’re now allowed to roam free without a face mask in the state and who might rebel if asked to wear one inside a place of business. In fact, replace “might” with “probably will.”
And it gets even more complicated than that. Indoor, enclosed shopping malls might not have a face mask mandate of their own, but individual stores inside those malls can. And if this all sounds like much ado about nothing, in terms of worrying about the confusion and conflict this might cause, Exhibit A is the city of Flint, Michigan, where a guard at a Family Dollar store there was shot and killed last year in a dispute over wearing face masks.
It will be very important to watch how this plays out in Texas, where some businesses say they’re planning to keep the face mask mandate in place but feel powerless to enforce them. Meanwhile, it’s not just the face mask rule that Texas recently decided to relax — business capacity requirements have been returned back to normal, as well. For the time being, in other words, none of this COVID-era business capacity capped at 25% or 50% anymore in Texas. The state now says businesses can return to 100% occupancy.
As with the differences in face mask mandates that will now be in effect from one place to the next, in response to which many people will no doubt default to not wearing them at all, businesses in Texas are still allowed to enforce COVID safety protocols “at their own discretion,” per the governor’s order, even though the capacity limits were just ended. When the share of COVID-19 patients in a given area goes up, though, businesses in that area can re-institute whatever COVID safety measures they rolled back.
The danger here should be obvious. We have to return to pre-pandemic behaviors eventually — no one is expecting people to stay at home indefinitely, for example. But if this process is rushed, we could end up triggering a return to the very same state of affairs we’re trying to put behind us, which doesn’t help anything.