Many Austin and Travis County businesses starting Tuesday no longer need to require masks for fully vaccinated people indoors if fewer than 500 individuals are inside at once, according to new pandemic rules set in place by Dr. Mark Escott, the exiting Austin-Travis County health authority.
The new rules come just days after the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines saying fully vaccinated residents no longer need to wear masks or remain socially distant in many public spaces.
Several large retailers and grocery chains like Target, Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Sam’s Club quickly adopted the new recommendations over the weekend and stopped requiring masks for those who are protected from the disease through vaccination.
However, Austin and Travis County residents up until Tuesday were still required by law to wear masks in most public spaces because of a mask mandate set in place by Escott. The mask mandate, also known as the health authority rules, require businesses to enforce masking for both employees and customers.
Escott’s mask mandate was highly debated earlier this year after it was challenged by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who argued that local health leaders could not make people cover their faces in public because Gov. Greg Abbott had already updated his orders to say that masks were no longer necessary. However, state District Judge Lora Livingston ruled in favor of Escott’s mandate in late March, saying the local rules would stay in place.
Escott on Friday said he would need at least until Monday to decide how he wished to revise his rules to incorporate the CDC’s recommendations for fully vaccinated people. However, Escott delayed his decision until Tuesday, which is when his local mask mandate was set to expire.
Escott, whose tenure as health authority will end on May 31, said he had no plans to remove the mask mandate completely and hoped businesses would still require masks at least until mid-June.
Escott on Tuesday said events and businesses can now also stop requiring masks for fully vaccinated people if fewer than 2,500 people are gathered outside at once. Fully vaccinated people will have to wear a mask in outdoor settings if more than 2,500 people are gathered.
Partially vaccinated and non-vaccinated residents must still wear masks and remain at least three feet from others while outside and inside at public spaces, according to Escott.
While masking is no longer required for vaccinated individuals in many places throughout the nation, the CDC guidelines say people will still be required to wear masks on buses, trains, planes and at hospitals, nursing homes and several other high-risk areas.
Escott on Tuesday said it’s also at the discretion of each business owner to decide whether masking will be required, just as some do if customers try to come into a store without a shirt or shoes.
Escott’s revised rules are set to expire June 15, according to Austin Public Health.
Austin Public Health leaders on Tuesday also modified the agency’s risk-based guidelines to allow for loosened masking and social distancing rules during the joint coronavirus briefing with Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners.
While the health authority’s mask mandate is enforced by law, Austin Public Health guidelines are not legal requirements, but some aspects are enforced as part of the county’s health codes.
Austin Public Health’s risk-based guidelines, which reflect a level of threat to those at risk of experiencing the most severe symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, range from the lowest threat at Stage 1 to the highest threat at Stage 5.
Escott said Austin and Travis County as of Tuesday would now operate under Stage 2 rules, where fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors while gathered in private groups. They can also shop or dine without a mask if the business allows for such just like stated in the mask mandate, according to the guidelines.
Under Austin Public Health’s recently updated guidelines, businesses no longer have to operate at limited capacity either.
Austin school district students and employees will still have to wear masks while indoors for the rest of the school year, according to district officials on Friday.
Health leaders on Friday said it’s especially important to keeping masking in place at schools because many children are still vulnerable to the disease. Only the Pfizer vaccine is approved so far to vaccinate children as young as 12.
This is a developing story; check back for updates.