Some small-business owners worry about Gov. Abbott lifting coronavirus restrictions

Danette’s Urban Oasis has tried to live up to its name during the pandemic. Massages, manicures and pedicures were all close-contact risks Danette Wicker chose to take when reopening her boutique shop in Fort Worth early last summer.

A one-woman operation, Wicker said her job will be more difficult now that Gov. Greg Abbott will no longer require Texans to wear face masks starting March 10, against the advice of health experts.

"As a small-business owner, it’s putting us in the firing line where you have to make the best decision for you and your business and you’re going to be fighting people who are literally celebrating in the streets," Wicker, 53, said in an interview. "Here in Fort Worth people are having temper tantrums, knocking stuff off counters. People have had to be physically removed from businesses around here. I'm not one to be played with. You do anything in my personal business, I will not allow that foolishness."

Abbott’s order will leave it to business owners to decide whether to require customers wear masks inside their establishments. That comes after Abbott already started pushing state legislators for a law providing civil protections for companies against coronavirus-related lawsuits. And experts say loosening coronavirus restrictions may do little to help the state’s uneven economic recovery as long as the threat of exposure to the virus persists.

Wicker said she has strict coronavirus safety protocols at her business, which will remain in place. Few people are allowed inside at one time and every customer is required to wear a mask unless they are receiving a massage.

Health experts continue to widely advise people to wear masks and avoid large gatherings. But that didn’t stop Abbott from appearing Tuesday at a packed Mexican restaurant in Lubbock to announce his new order.

In addition to lifting the mask mandate next week, Abbott will allow businesses to operate at full capacity. If COVID-19 hospitalizations in any of Texas' 22 hospital regions rise above 15% of the capacity in that region for seven straight days, a county judge "may use COVID mitigation strategies in their county," according to the governor.

The order also establishes that nothing "precludes businesses or other establishments from requiring employees or customers to follow additional hygiene measures, including the wearing of a face covering."

Meanwhile, Texans continue contracting the coronavirus and new variants are showing up across the state. An average of more than 200 Texans died each day due to the virus over the last week.

Health experts said even that tally is likely an undercount due to much of the state essentially shutting down for an entire week because of winter weather that Texas leaders failed to prepare for, leaving millions of Texans without electricity and nearly 15 million with water issues for days or weeks.

And while the state and the Biden administration have ramped up vaccinations, less than 7% of Texans had been fully vaccinated as of this weekend.

Abbott’s announcement doesn’t only present a health risk for Texans, experts said, the order will also likely not lead to an economic boon, just as the state’s economy has seen an uneven and at times backwards recovery despite Abbott’s various reopening orders over the last year.

"If you just remove all the restrictions, I think it'd be maybe a modest help to the economy if that's all you do, and things don't improve with the virus," said Seth Giertz, economics professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. "And if some places aren't imposing restrictions, that could lead to superspreader events. That's going to actually make things worse and harm the economy."

Still, the Texas Restaurant Association on Tuesday supported Abbott’s order and recommended to its member restaurants to meet with staff and clientele before coming to any decisions on lifting restrictions.

Also Tuesday, the grocery chain H-E-B indicated in a statement that it won't require customers to wear masks.

Abbott’s order will also cause more confusion for Texans as to where they will be required to wear a mask. Some business owners who have voiced their intentions of keeping coronavirus restrictions in place are already drawing ire and promises of boycotts from customers.

"I’m going to potentially lose people who want to walk in somewhere like before COVID," Wicker said. "The virus has not left and the mutations are here. It’s scary."

Black Texans like Wicker are far more worried about the coronavirus compared to white Texans, according to a Texas Tribune-University of Texas poll released this week. Texans of color have been disproportionately killed by the virus and impacted by its accompanying recession during the last year. Because many of these Texans live in neighborhoods with older homes, more vulnerable pipes and fewer food options, they also faced a more difficult time withstanding the cold temperatures and power outages in February.

Most low-wage workers in Texas, who are often Black and Hispanic, have not had opportunities to work from home. Front-line workers are predominantly women and people of color. As a result, workers at places like grocery stores have had to contend with Texans trying to flout restrictions meant to keep people safe.

Jackie Ryan, a cashier at Kroger who also helps shoppers navigate self-checkout lanes, saw this play out nearly every shift — one customer after another at her store south of Dallas not wearing masks. Ryan and her colleagues were called essential workers during the pandemic, yet have not been prioritized to receive the coronavirus vaccine. They’ve come to accept that they were going to have to work in an environment where health and safety rules were routinely disregarded by customers.

When Ryan heard about Abbott’s announcement on Tuesday, she said it immediately made no sense.

"The economy and the people need to get back to work. But to couple that with lifting the mask mandate is just stupid," Ryan said. "It does make me nervous. COVID is not gone. People are not all vaccinated."

Dr. Diana Fite, president of the Texas Medical Association, said Ryan has a point.

"If a person is employed in a place where the owner does not insist that everyone in there wear a mask, then they have to make that decision — they probably don’t want to lose their job, and it does make them a little more at risk," Fite said. "Maybe they can try socially distancing as much as possible, but it puts them in a hard situation there. It’s not something where you would just say, ‘Well, just go find another job.’ That is not good advice."

Karen Brooks Harper and Reese Oxner contributed reporting.

Disclosure: H-E-B, the Texas Medical Association, the Texas Restaurant Association, the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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