In interviews with The Eagle, local officials, public health experts and business owners reacted to Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday afternoon announcement that he will lift all coronavirus-related statewide mandates March 10.
Federal officials cautioned Monday against lifting protective measures.
Abbott said if COVID-19 hospitalization rates in a region rise above 15% for seven consecutive days, county judges would have the authority to “use COVID mitigation strategies in their county.”
Brazos County Judge Duane Peters said in a phone interview that he would, if that happened, consult with a variety of stakeholders and leaders about next steps.
“If that happened, then I certainly would want to be in discussion with the hospitals — I’d want to be in conversation with a number of people,” Peters said. “My hope is that we won’t have to worry about it. At some point we’ve got to open up.”
Peters said conversations will continue in the coming days regarding Abbott’s order, noting that certain areas such as courtrooms, where people are sitting indoors for long periods of time, could be higher-risk areas. He also expressed a desire for vulnerable populations to be protected and encouraged people to follow precautions and assess risks.
In separate interviews after Abbott’s announcement, two local public health experts — Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Texas A&M’s School of Public Health, and Dr. Seth Sullivan, Brazos County’s alternate health authority — said mask use has been a proven tactic in mitigating the spread of the virus.
“The mask is, honestly, the biggest thing we have in our tool box for fighting this virus. We need to keep those masks on,” Fischer said, noting guidance this week from the Centers for Disease Control and other experts. “Everybody’s really hopeful with the vaccines. … We all want things to get back to normal, [but] we’re not there yet. I think the governor’s decision to lift the mandates needs to be couched within the scenario that we find ourselves currently. We have, still, so many infections happening every day and so many deaths occurring across Texas.”
Sullivan said vaccinations “have to be our top priority right now,” and added that virus variants and positivity rates amid increasing vaccinations lead to an uncertain present moment.
“The things that we’ve done thus far have worked — and we have more work to do,” Sullivan said. “Ultimately, time is going to tell us whether this is too soon. No one really knows. We can speculate right now.”
Sullivan said hospitals and other health facilities will still continue to require masks; Jim Stewart, the county’s vaccine task force chief, said of the Brazos Center vaccine hub: “As far as I’m concerned, if you’re coming in, you’re wearing a mask.”
“I have a lot of confidence in the residents of the Brazos Valley to make good decisions,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think there should be panic. There’s still plenty of room for good decision-making here.”
Bryan Mayor Andrew Nelson and College Station Mayor Karl Mooney said officials are looking into how city employees, meetings and spaces will be affected by the change in mandates. Both mayors said they are excited for businesses to be open to full capacity, but said they hope business owners continue providing people with services such as delivery and curbside options.
“We also have to think about what it is that got us to where we are today, and that is we did do those social practices,” Mooney said. “And I know some folks don’t want to wear masks, I understand that, but I would ask them to keep that in mind.”
The mayors said that on a personal level, it seemed too early to lift the mask mandate, and they said both cities will continue to encourage people to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and practice physical distancing, pointing out as Abbott did that those are the types of protocols that led to the state’s recent improvement in COVID-19 cases.
If COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations due to the virus begin to rise to levels that allow the county to bring back certain precautions, Nelson said he would be open-minded and listen to experts and collaborate with other officials about how to move forward.
“If we’re going to restrict people’s freedoms and their rights, that has to be very limited, it has to be very clearly defined, and it needs to be for a short period of time — not one day more than what is necessary,” he said.”
U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, a Waco Republican who represents most of the Brazos Valley, praised Abbott’s announcement on social media.
“Great news for the economy and small businesses! Happy to see Texas taking the lead in getting back to a sense of normalcy,” Sessions wrote.
In letters to parents and guardians, the Bryan and College Station school districts each said they were seeking to obtain more information and that all current protocols remain in effect. The Texas Education Agency released a statement late Tuesday saying guidance on its precautions will be coming later this week.
“There is mixed interpretation as to whether local districts can set their own standards or whether we must abide by the forthcoming direction from the Texas Education Agency,” wrote Christie Whitbeck, Bryan superintendent. “As we know more, I will share that with you. Please know, whatever happens, we will continue to put Children First. Always.”
Texas A&M University, its athletics department and the Blinn College District also shared statements indicating they are reviewing the governor’s order.
Glen Brewer, president and CEO of the Bryan-College Station Chamber of Commerce, said he anticipated that most local businesses would open fully, with a range of virus precautions employed.
“The chamber has been working to get our businesses back open responsibly for some time. We have been supportive of efforts to flatten the curve and the work to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed,” Brewer said. “We applaud the effort to open up the businesses, and we are still strongly encouraging mask use and other precautions.”
Belender Wells, owner of Fargo’s Pit BBQ in Bryan, said her restaurant, which has been “on an upswing lately” in terms of business lately, would take some time to figure out its policy on requirements. Wells added that she would continue to wear a mask even after the state mandate is lifted.
Wade Beckman, co-owner of Shipwreck Grill, Amico Nave Ristorante and 3rd on Main, described the policy change as “both exciting and overwhelming,” and said “most things in COVID have kind of been a double-edged sword when they come at you.”
“We still need to make decisions on what’s safest for our staff and safest for our guests,” Beckman said. He said he was grateful for the week to decide how best to proceed, and added, “There are big decisions ahead. I don’t believe it to be just a free-for-all as a business owner.”
Beckman added that the immediate business implications were unclear.
“You look at it and say, does this mean more people will feel safe because the governor said that and more people are going to rush out, or do you have some pushback from some people who have come out because they believed the way we’re operating is safe but now don’t feel [like] coming out? It’s a big unknown.” Beckman said. “There’s a balance between the profits and sales that we need, but also the safety and security of everybody.”
“I imagine there are a lot of people out there nervous. I’m nervous about where we’re going to be in two weeks if people decide that they don’t need to wear masks,” Fischer said. “We will get there where things can relax a little bit and feel more normal, but we’re still on a journey.”
Eagle reporter Megan Rodriguez contributed to this article.