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Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and other city leaders emphasized the importance of wearing masks in response to Gov. Greg Abbott's most recent order, which will lift business capacity restrictions and the statewide masking mandate next week.

Abbott said during a statewide press conference on Tuesday that he would "open Texas 100%" effective March 10 as case rates continue to drop and record vaccine shipments roll in. State mandates, which previously limited businesses' capacity and required customers to wear masks, will be reversed, and staying safe during the remainder of the pandemic will be a "personal responsibility," according to Abbott.

Adler, Brown, St. David's Hospital Dr. Jose "Mario" Ayala, Austin Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Laura Huffman, Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 286 President Chap Thornton and Austin local entrepreneur Joi Chevalier spoke out against Abbott's order during a Wednesday morning press conference.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, Abbott said he would be guided by science, and on Tuesday he broke that promise," Adler said. "When the governor breaks his promise to us, we must make a promise to each other."

Adler is concerned for frontline workers, who are still not eligible for vaccinations as a group, and said that vaccines alone are not the answer to protecting essential workers and other at-risk members of the community. Although the city can no longer penalize those who don't wear masks, Adler said he hopes that the possibility of more COVID deaths is enough to keep people wearing masks.

Only around 7% of Travis County residents who are 16 or older are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Until vaccinations reach 80% of the population, Brown said that the mask mandate should not be lifted and that herd immunity cannot be reached.

"Yesterday's announcement from the governor—it comes at a time when the community is still recovering and still in the middle of crises," he said. "This is not time to be lifting the mask ordinance. We are not declaring victory on the pandemic. We are not over the pandemic."

Brown said that a potential "third surge" due to people not wearing masks would be devastating to the community and could reverse much of the progress that has been made in recent months.

Austin Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Laura Huffman said that choosing to wear masks in public is vital to keeping businesses alive and supporting both business and customer safety.

"If you look at what's happened over the past year, we've seen a lot of our favorite businesses close in Austin," she said. "Be respectful of businesses who are doing everything they can to stay open."

According to St. David's Hospital's Dr. Jose "Mario" Ayala, COVID is a "lonely" disease that can not be taken lightly. Ayala said the lifting of the mask mandate goes against science and that the city needs to continue to promote vaccinations, especially to the local Hispanic population, whose members are overrepresented among COVID hospitalizations and deaths and underrepresented among vaccine recipients.

"We need to follow science and data, not politics," Ayala said. "With COVID, you're in the hospital (and) you have nobody, it is one of the loneliest diseases I've ever seen. It's a small price to pay."

Adler and Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said that the lifting of the mask mandate was done to deflect the state of Texas' failure to provide energy to the state during the winter storm. In the storm, millions lost power and water during a week of subfreezing temperatures. Through all of the city's efforts to recover both during and after the storm, Zarifis said that Education Austin workers continued to wear masks.

"In spite of state leadership, we continue to follow science," Zarifis said. "The reason we are still at some measure of success is not because COVID has gotten safer. You don't stop running halfway through the race, you will lose."

In Austin, COVID hospitalization rates are down 57% since Feb. 1, but fewer than 7% of residents are fully vaccinated.

"We have to decide whether or not masking happens in a widespread manner in our community i just hope and trust that regardless of what the governor orders or doesn't order... we will continue to mask up," Adler said.


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