Loosened Restrictions, New Vaccines & COVID-19 Politics: A Look Back At The Week's Pandemic News
This has been a big week for COVID-19 news in North Texas. To start, a third vaccine was approved for emergency use and it's already in Dallas. Also, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that Texas would lift its mask mandate and other pandemic restrictions on businesses.
On Tuesday, at a Mexican food restaurant in Lubbock, Gov. Abbott told Texans that the fight against COVID-19 had gotten to the point where "people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate” any longer.
"Personal vigilance to follow the safe standards is still needed to contain COVID," he said. "It’s just that now, state mandates are no longer needed."
The news came one day after the federal government announced that the highly-anticipated Johnson & Johnson vaccine had been authorized and would be shipped to vaccine providers across the country.
KERA reporters Hady Mawajdeh, Alejandra Martinez, and Bret Jaspers have been keeping track of all of this and the trio gathered virtually to break it all down:
Bret Jaspers: Hady, let’s talk about the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine first. How many doses are we getting?
Hady Mawajdeh: Well, Texas has already received 24,000 — 12,000 were shipped to Houston. The other 12,000 came to Dallas-Fort Worth for the vaccine 'super sites' being co-run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Dallas will begin administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this Friday, March 5.
The Texas Department of State Health Services told me that 200,000 more doses headed to Texas next week. Those will be allocated to providers across the state.
Jaspers: Now there are three kinds of COVID-19 vaccine shots — Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. Can people choose which one they want to receive?
Mawajdeh: No, not really. Providers can choose which brands they’ll offer. Individuals get to choose their providers. But if that provider doesn’t have the brand they want... then, they’re stuck.
Still, health experts recommend that people get whichever vaccine that's available to them. Remember, all of the vaccines prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and death from COVID-19 and that’s the goal with any vaccine.
Alejandra Martinez: The other big story of course is Governor Greg Abbott lifting COVID-19 restrictions on businesses. Bret, what’re the basics?
Jaspers: Two main things: the statewide mask mandate is ending and businesses can open to 100% capacity. Both changes start on Wednesday, March 10.
Now, there’s a caveat: If a region sees 15% of its hospital capacity is taken up by COVID-19 patients, a county can then say businesses can only be half full. But counties can’t go lower than that.
Mawajdeh: Alé, you’ve been talking to businesses in North Texas. What are they saying?
Martinez: I heard from Luis Casares, the manager of the restaurant Coco’s Fire & Ice in Dallas’ Bishop Arts District. He says workers are worried about their safety.
Casares: "All the employees feel a little worried especially they have all their families in their houses that haven’t taken shots. They have babies that they have to go to every night and of course now they feel exposed with now customers having the liberty to come in without a face mask."
Martinez: His restaurant is not making masks mandatory for customers. But they’re doing their best to “encourage” people to wear them.
As for his employees, Casares tells me they are required to mask up. He says some will be double masking and wearing face shields for extra protection.
Mawajdeh: How are others reacting?
Martinez: Well, for many business owners this decision from the governor puts them in a tough position. Will they attract customers if they require masks or will they turn them away?
This is Donna Craddock, co-owner of The Dock Bookshop in Fort Worth.
Craddock: "We think it’s a little premature so we are still encouraging our customers to wear masks… now if they are making a big fuss about it or whatever we are going to try to get them in and get them out."
Martinez: Craddock says they are still not sure about opening their book store to 100% capacity. Many other businesses I talked to are in the same boat. They’re just doing their best to urge their customers to follow safety guidelines.
Mawajdeh: What rights do business owners have?
Martinez: Starting next Wednesday, businesses will be able to reopen without a mask requirement.
They can still ask people to wear masks if they want to.
The difference is that businesses used to rely on the mask mandate to tell their customers to keep their masks on and now they cannot.
Mawajdeh: Bret, we got questions from listeners about Abbott's rule change. Here's one from Thomas McArthur of Lewisville. Let's see if you can help him out.
McArthur: "My question for Governor Abbott is, why are you lifting this mask mandate and these safety precautions in the middle of what could become another major surge?"
Jaspers: So, Abbott’s stated rationale is that hospitalizations have dropped and Texas is going to vaccinate a lot more people by summer.
Also, people are now used to wearing masks and will keep doing that, he says.
Time will tell, but public health experts are against removing the mask mandate, saying it’s too soon.
Martinez: What are the politics behind this Bret?
Jaspers: Well, here are two ways to look at this politically. Abbott may want to change the subject after the winter storm and the criticism he’s received.
Another analysis that I heard from pollsters at the University of Texas at Austin is that a majority of Republicans in Texas are wearing masks, but also, they think public activities like going to the mall or to the movies are safe.
Martinez: So, essentially, the governor is reflecting what a big group of Texans want?
Jaspers: That’s one way to look at it. It doesn’t mean Abbott’s move here is the right policy, but it’s an answer to the question, “why is he doing this.”
Mawajdeh: Yeah, there are certainly a lot of people happy about this, and who’ve bristled under the government restricting business and mandating masks.
Jaspers: I wonder how much people will actually return to larger gatherings? I guess we’ll get an idea this weekend. It's supposed to be a beautiful one.
Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at firstname.lastname@example.org, Hady Mawajdeh at hady@KERA.org and Alejandra at email@example.com. You can follow Bret @bretjaspers, Alejandra @alereports and Hady @hadysauce on Twitter.
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