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Unvaccinated Frontline Workers In Texas Could Be At Risk With Lifting Of Mask Mandate

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Texas will soon be the largest state in the country without any COVID-19 restrictions on businesses. Governor Greg Abbott is ending his mask mandate and other measures. The move has drawn criticism from health officials and President Biden. And as Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin reports, many frontline workers are nervous.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Emily Hoover says this decision is going to make running her business harder. Hoover is the owner of a women's store in Austin called Feathers Boutique Vintage. She started requiring masks in her store even before the state had its own order, which she says wasn't popular at first.

EMILY HOOVER: I had a really hard time as a business getting people to comply and a lot of people calling me, messaging me, telling me that, you know, I needed to get rid of it or that they wouldn't shop with me as long as I had a mask mandate.

LOPEZ: Last summer, she says, things got easier when Governor Greg Abbott issued a statewide order requiring people to wear masks in public spaces. But this week, Abbott announced he's rescinding the order effective next week.

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GREG ABBOTT: People and businesses don't need the state telling them how to operate.

LOPEZ: Abbott says businesses can still decide on their own if they want to limit capacity or require masks. Angelina Alanis has waitressed at a local Mexican restaurant that's had indoor dining for a while now. She says even with a limited capacity, it has felt pretty unsafe.

ANGELINA ALANIS: It's already pretty crowded in there to the point where people feel, like, uncomfortable walking up to the to-go window to get their to-gos (ph) because there will be, like, a crowd of people not wearing masks around the door waiting to get sat. So just going back up to 100% seems kind of overwhelming.

LOPEZ: But Alanis says if the restaurant she works at decides to open up capacity, she and her co-workers will probably just have to risk it.

ALANIS: It's kind of like, what choice do we have? Like, if our restaurant is open and seating, like, that's our job, so we have to, like, be willing to wait on people that are inside and sitting down.

LOPEZ: Even restaurant owners feel like they're being put in a bind and left to fend for themselves. Michael Fojtasek is the owner of Olamaie, an upscale Southern restaurant in Austin. He says state officials are lifting restrictions without providing a path for workers to get vaccinated earlier.

MICHAEL FOJTASEK: We need help with messaging so that we can protect ourselves instead of fighting the general public and trying to convince them that we - that our lives are valuable and that they should wear a mask to protect us.

LOPEZ: Another worry - large venues will now have little to stop them from hosting large gatherings. Santiago Dietche manages a local DJ and event band company called Dart Collective. He says Texas is already a destination for larger events because restrictions have always been limited.

SANTIAGO DIETCHE: It's all but obvious that there are going to be more people come flocking in to Texas.

LOPEZ: In Austin, local officials say they're trying to figure out how they can keep some rules in place. Andy Brown, the county executive, says it's hard to tell what that will look like right now.

ANDY BROWN: I'm working with our county attorney to see what our options are. But, you know, I think that we're going to do everything possible to still require masks in any way possible under that order and under the law.

LOPEZ: But enforcement is off the table. In his announcement yesterday, Governor Abbott said local officials will still not be allowed to jail anyone for not following local COVID rules, including not wearing a mask, even if a business requires it.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.