To Mask or Not to Mask, That Is the Question: Looking at the Mask Mandate Lift and its Effects

Sanwi Sarode, Staff Writer

Over 70,000 U.S. stores and businesses closed when the COVID-19 pandemic first began, according to Forbes. COVID-19 vaccines were recently developed, and according to the Texas Tribune, as of March 13, approximately 10% of Texas’s population has been vaccinated. In response to more Texans being vaccinated, Gov. Greg Abbott decided to lift the mask mandate for all Texans starting March 10.

 Senior Sebastian Lopez, an HEB employee, said that the removal of the mask mandate is already affecting his workplace. According to Lopez, within the first few mandate-free days, he could already see a difference in the amount of customers coming into the store to shop.

“The amount of people going in and out of HEB actually declined a little bit, obviously, because less people were willing to go out of their houses,” Lopez said. “But ever since Greg Abbott decided to lift the mask mandate, we’ve already been seeing a lot more people starting to come in, and the crowd density has gone a lot higher.”

When the mandate was first removed, HEB had a policy requiring all its staff to wear masks and to strongly encourage its customers to do so too. A few days later, HEB made it mandatory for its customers to wear masks as well. During the few days that masks were not required to be worn, Lopez said he had also noticed more people taking advantage of the lift.

“I took a week off from HEB, and my last shift was a week before Abbott lifted the mask mandate, and then when I came back I could already notice there were so many more people just maskless in a store taking advantage of the lift,” Lopez said. 

Matt Shook owns a chain of juice bars in Texas called Juiceland, which is local to the Austin area. Although the mask mandate was lifted, businesses and stores like Juiceland can still decide whether they want their customers and staff to wear masks. Shook said he decided that customers and staff should still be required to wear masks.

Having the mask mandate repealed could have been a preemptive decision, Lopez said.  According to him, the maskless mandate is a decision that won’t help Texans in the long run.

“I hope and pray that we don’t get bit in the butt again by COVID, but with such loose rules on masks, the effort to use the vaccine to its highest potential is just not going to be there,” Lopez said. “There’s a large number of people in the U.S. now, especially in Texas, who don’t trust the vaccine. Now that they’re going to be allowed to also walk around maskless in public, the signs are going to show for themselves. We’re probably going to see a spike in COVID again.”

Shook has a similar opinion and said that it’s still necessary to wear masks. According to Shook, if something is meant for one’s safety, it’s best to do it. 

“We all agree that a four-way stop sign is intended to be used to protect people,” Shook said. “It’s for safety, so everyone does it. I don’t see how masks would be any different. Why not do something that encourages safety? If it saves lives, what’s the big deal? We all wear seat belts or we get a ticket. What’s the difference between a seatbelt and a mask? Sure, you could argue that it infringes on your liberty, but we do it because it’s safer.”

According to a press release from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, now is not the time to pull back on restrictions. She stated that the next few months are critical for vaccination rollouts, and it would help if people still abided by the CDC guidelines.

“I think we at the CDC have been very clear that now is not the time to release all restrictions,” Walensky said. “The next month or two is really pivotal with how this pandemic goes as we scale up vaccinations, we really do need to decrease the amount of the virus that is circulating as we are trying to vaccinate all of the public.”

Walensky also said that she’s afraid that rolling back health measures will undermine the progress Texas made. Austin is currently in Stage 3, and Texas is still receiving over 100 hospitalizations due to COVID-19 every day, according to Texas Medical Center. 

“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Walensky said. “I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19.”

Shook said that for people to be able to go back to normality, it’s important to receive and follow guidelines from actual health officials instead of politicians. He also said that not enough people have been vaccinated yet for others to stop wearing masks.

Lopez also said that people need to learn to accept the truth and stop spreading conspiracy theories. According to Lopez, theories like these are what make people skeptical of the vaccine.

“I think there would need to be more emphasis on the truth and valuing what is true and not accepting what isn’t,” Lopez said. “Nowadays, the truth means so little. There’s this revolutionary vaccine that has exceeded expectations in the medical part of this, and it’s too bad that there’s a false narrative being spread around. It ranges from conspiracy theories like Alex Jones saying like the vaccine is used to help the government track you. There’s a lot of silly things being said about the vaccine, so I think that for there to be an Austin without masks, we need to all appreciate and value what is true.”

According to Lopez, unless the truth is valued in terms of masks and vaccines, there will be a lot of conflict and disagreements with a lack of resolutions. Americans should still do what they can to protect themselves and their community against COVID-19, Walensky said. 

“I will also note that every individual is empowered to do the right thing here regardless of what the states decide, for personal health, for public health, for the health of their loved ones, and communities,” Walensky said. “I would still encourage individuals to wear a mask, to socially distance, to do the right thing to protect their own health.