Governor Abbott Ends Statewide Mask Mandate and Allows Businesses to Open at 100% Capacity Effective March 10

Jackson Walker
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Jackson Walker

Earlier this afternoon, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued Executive Order GA-34, which will lift the state’s COVID-19-related occupancy limits and mask requirement effective March 10, 2021. Previous executive orders generally required masks to be worn in public when maintaining six feet of social distancing was not possible, and limited the operating capacity of most businesses and other establishments to either 50% or 75%.

When GA-34 goes into effect on March 10, except in areas with high COVID-related hospitalizations, there will be no state-imposed “COVID-19-related operating limits for any business or other establishment,” and “no person may be required by any jurisdiction to wear or to mandate the wearing of a face covering.” GA-34 does allow “businesses or other establishments” to require employees and customers to wear masks, and continues to encourage affected care facilities to follow visitation and infection control guidance from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, local officials in the state’s urban areas imposed a patchwork of local occupancy limits, business closures, and mask requirements. In response, Governor Abbott issued statewide restrictions which stated that they preempted conflicting or more restrictive local orders. As a result, the Governor’s statewide executive orders have set a ceiling for COVID-related restrictions in Texas for the last several months. As the Governor lifts the state’s occupancy limits and mask mandate, however, GA-34 reopens the door to limited local restrictions.

Effective March 10, in counties located in an “area with high hospitalizations”—one in which more than 15% of local hospital capacity is occupied by COVID-19 patients for seven consecutive days—GA-34 allows county judges to impose their own COVID-19 restrictions. However, those local restrictions may not:

  • Limit the operating capacity of most businesses and other establishments to less than 50% of total occupancy;
  • Restrict the operating capacity of houses of worship, public or private schools, institutions of higher education, or childcare services;
  • Impose jail time as a penalty for violating a local COVID-19 restriction; or
  • Penalize the failure to wear a mask, except by enforcing trespassing laws to remove a mask-less visitor at the request of a business or property owner.

COVID-19 hospitalization numbers fell in much of the state during and immediately after the recent winter storm that left much of Texas covered in snow and without power for prolonged periods. Currently, Texas designates only the El Paso area as an “area with high hospitalizations.” If that is still the case on March 10, GA-34 would only permit local COVID-related restrictions in counties located in El Paso’s Trauma Service Area. However, some local public health officials have predicted a post-storm uptick in hospitalization numbers. Jackson Walker will continue to monitor state-reported data and will update this post to reflect current hospitalization totals and their impact on local COVID-19 regulations as the end of statewide restrictions on March 10 nears.

In GA-34, Governor Abbott also rescinded or superseded Executive Orders GA-25, which closed jails to visitors; GA-17, which created the Governor’s Strike Force to Open Texas; and GA-31, which required hospitals in areas with high hospitalizations to suspend certain elective surgeries, required all Texas hospitals to reserve capacity for COVID-19 patients, and suspended certain state healthcare regulations. View Jackson Walker’s article “Governor Abbott Loosens Restrictions on Businesses, Hospital Capacity, and Nursing Home Visitation Policies for Most Counties in Texas” for additional insights on GA-31.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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