A patchwork of rules emerges after governor drops mask order

“Hang in there a little while longer, and let these next few weeks pass by,” Presidio Mayor John Ferguson urged residents after Gov. Greg Abbott ended his statewide mask mandate.

TRI-COUNTY — Effective this Wednesday, Governor Greg Abbott has ended statewide requirements to wear masks in public, once again leaving businesses to decide whether to enforce mask rules on their own. In a news release, Abbott said he was reopening Texas “to 100 percent.” He also ended capacity limits on businesses, even as the state continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Cities will still be able to impose coronavirus restrictions in city buildings, his office later announced, and they can encourage citizens to wear masks. In Marfa on Tuesday night, city officials voted to continue requiring masks in municipal buildings and maintained their current capacity limits. Marfa police will still be required to wear masks.

Officials, including at the Marfa Visitors Center, said they would prefer to stay at “level 4” precautions for at least a while longer. Nicki Ittner, director of the Marfa Library, said the library would feel comfortable reopening its courtyard and the city approved that change.

City leaders expressed frustration with the new state guidance. “I want to say publicly I am extremely disappointed with our governor,” Councilmember Buck Johnston said. Councilmember Irma Salgado added: “Me too.”

In Presidio, the city council has not held a meeting since the new rules were announced and therefore has not adopted any new measures. But John Ferguson, the Presidio mayor, said that at a bare minimum, he would continue urging residents to wear masks.

“Hang in there a little while longer, and let these next few weeks pass by,” he said. He added: “the [new coronavirus] variants are what is troubling a lot of the authorities.”

He expected city council would feel the same. At past meetings, he noted, council members “get pretty mad when Abbott pulls the rug out from underneath us.” At a council meeting last May, shortly after Governor Abbott banned cities from making their own mask rules, Councilmember Antonio Manriquez slammed Abbott’s new state orders, saying the state viewed Presidians as “dispensable.”

The governor did offer some ways that counties could once again limit business operations in the event of another spike in coronavirus cases. Each county is sorted into a Trauma Service Area, and if hospitalizations for COVID-19 take up more than 15 percent of the area’s hospital capacity, counties can limit business operations up to, but not beyond, 50 percent.

The new rules come as Texas starts to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. The vaccine rollout that began late in December has resulted in three vaccines effective at preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19. In Presidio County, 2,515 individuals have received one dose of the vaccine, with 1,403 reaching full vaccination.

There is a growing number of vaccinated Presidio County residents, making the Centers for Disease Control’s newly announced set of guidelines for fully vaccinated people more relevant. Someone is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second dose of Moderna or Pfizer, or the first dose of Johnson & Johnson.

“There are some activities that fully vaccinated people can begin to resume now in their own homes,” said CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH. The CDC said those with full vaccinations can visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors, without masks or distancing. They can also visit with one other household indoors that isn’t vaccinated, as long as everyone in the household is at low risk for the disease.

Still, Walensky warned, “Everyone – even those who are vaccinated – should continue with all mitigation strategies when in public settings.” That includes wearing masks in public, since limited spread can still happen even after large numbers of Americans get the vaccine.

Texas mask rules have regularly changed across the state and have at times been a source of confusion for residents. At first, cities were free to set their own rules. Marfa, Presidio and other tri-county communities responded quickly, adopting mask rules and other precautions early in the pandemic.

In May, Governor Abbott started “reopening” Texas. He banned cities and counties from adopting stricter rules than he had at the state level — overturning mask rules and other precautions, including a temporary ban on short-term rentals in Marfa.  He allowed bars and hair salons to reopen.

Cases soon climbed — and Governor Abbott responded with more precautions, expressing regret for how quickly he opened bars and shuttering them again. Then, in one of the most confusing twists in statewide coronavirus policy, there was the mask loophole.

Around June, Governor Abbott clarified that while local officials couldn’t require people to wear masks, they could require businesses to require masks. Cities and counties across the state, including Marfa and Presidio, soon responded by adopting reworded versions of their original mask rules.

Later, Governor Abbott issued a statewide mask order but allowed counties to get an exemption if they had fewer than 20 cases. But by that point, mask guidance was a source of confusion for many Texans — and regardless, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, local mask rules were often not enforced.

As was the case last year, when Texas banned local governments from requiring masks, businesses will still be able to set their own rules. If someone refuses to wear a mask in a business, they can be cited for criminal trespass.

At Marfa’s city council meeting, Police Chief Steve Marquez stressed that Marfa police would be available to help with any mask-related trespass complaints. He urged businesses to contact the department if needed at 432-729-1841.

With The Big Bend Sentinel going to press just as the new rules take effect, it remains to be seen how various businesses will respond. In Alpine and Fort Davis, where masks have prompted controversy among some residents, some businesses may drop any pretense of requiring them, even if they barely enforced previous state mask rules. In Marfa and Presidio, where mask rules have prompted less controversy, many businesses have long required masks and will likely continue to do so.

On social media, many independent, small businesses have announced their intentions to continue to require masks in Marfa. Locals and visitors will have to look for signage or guidance from employees to determine which businesses will or will not be enforcing mask-wearing.

That leaves the big chains, of which there are a few prominent ones in the tri-county, including Stripes, Porter’s and Dollar General. Neither Dollar General nor Stripes responded to requests for comment on their rules.

At the Marfa Dollar General, an employee said they would continue requiring masks for customers and would have disposable masks available if anyone forgot one. Meanwhile, at Stripes, an employee on Tuesday said the company had not yet provided any guidance on the rules.

In an interview last week, Trae Porter, a member of the Porter’s leadership team, said the company was still deciding what it would do.

“We’re going back and forth like a ping-pong ball,” he said. “I understand why both sides would be upset. I think that’s the toughest thing: I can empathize with both sides.”

Regardless, Porter urged customers to remember that “people at store level didn’t make the decision” and to “reserve their angst for the decision-makers rather than people at the store level.”

On Tuesday, Porter’s issued its COVID guidance. Employees would still be required to wear masks, but the store would only “encourage” customers to do so. Porter was not immediately available for a follow-up interview on Wednesday.