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Business owner, hotels discuss end of mask mandate; doctors urge caution

For many universities, spring break is scheduled for the coming weeks. Also happening this month: the end of the statewide mask mandate.

AUSTIN, Texas — When it comes to traveling to Austin at a time like Spring Break, South Congress Avenue is usually on the list of places to go with all its quirky, locally-owned stores, restaurants and more. 

But the pandemic curbed leisure travel for some time. Now some South Congress business owners – like Brandon Hodge, the owner of Monkey See Monkey Do and Big Top Candy Shop – say the foot traffic is starting to pick up. 

"Really since the big freeze down here, traffic has picked up significantly," he said. "Not only do we have sort of the onset of springtime, a lot of people are beginning to be off for various spring breaks, which in Texas tend to stagger over this week and next. And just general cabin fever has really gotten people back out onto the streets."

As Hodge mentioned, March is when spring break occurs for many universities. Some, like Texas A&M University, decided to just do a three-day weekend instead of a whole week to "to minimize extensive travel."

Also happening this month: the end of the statewide mask mandate on Wednesday, March 10.

Credit: Luis de Leon
Monkey See Monkey Do on South Congress Avenue in Austin, TX.

"The revocation of the mask ordinance was just incredibly short-sighted and really a terrible blow to small businesses in general. The position it now puts us in [is] to enforce policies that a lot of folks think, because the governor lifted the mandate, we're no longer entitled to enforce," Hodge said. "So, it creates a lot of conflict on the ground for small business owners who were already in the midst of a pandemic and holding on for dear life."

Hodge is also the president of the South Congress Merchant's Association, which is made up of businesses on the popular strip. He said they unanimously agreed to continue enforcing their mask policy, as well as capacity limits. 

"Our influence extends only as far as our front doors. But we have found most customers are still respectful and abiding by those limits," Hodge said, adding "We're trying to protect our employees as well as our customers, and we'll continue to do so as long as necessary."

You can find a list of businesses continuing to require masks here

Credit: Luis de Leon
A sign on South Congress Avenue that enforces mask use inside of a business.

When it comes to hotels, several in Austin plan to keep their mask mandates intact for common areas. 

In a statement Monday, a Hilton spokesperson said in part, "Recent Executive Orders by some U.S. Governors regarding mask mandates and Covid-19 restrictions bring into focus the potential of a post-pandemic world. As remaining consistent with the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s and CDC’s guidelines has kept our guests and Team Members safe throughout the pandemic, Hilton’s policies will remain unchanged at this time."

Additionally, a spokesperson for the Austin Marriott Downtown told KVUE Monday that it will continue requiring masks in public spaces. 

Katie Soltas, the dual marketing manager for The Otis Hotel, AC Hotel Austin-University and Moxy Austin-University, told KVUE Monday that all three of those establishments will also continue requiring masks in public spaces. 

Credit: Luis de Leon
The Otis and AC Hotel near the University of Texas at Austin campus.

Doctors are also hoping people stay vigilant. 

"I think the biggest thing is not necessarily about warnings but about continuing to be careful," said Dr. Ogechika Alozie, an infectious disease specialist and member of the Texas Medical Association COVID-19 Task Force. "I think the biggest message for people is get vaccinated when you can because that will protect you. But if you haven't been vaccinated, I think you still have to hold off and really try to be as careful and protective for you and your family as possible."

He added that though the mask mandate is being lifted, Texans shouldn't let our guard down just yet. 

"And so, until we can get that vaccine percentage up, take the vaccines when you can, people still have to be careful. People still have to mask. They have to try to [be as] physically distant [as] possible," he said.

Spring break and the end of both the statewide mask mandate and business restrictions are all happening the same week that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidance for fully vaccinated individuals. 

Among other things, the CDC said those that are fully vaccinated can visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physically distancing and visit indoors with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease without wearing masks or physically distancing.

Dr. Brian Metzger, the medical director of infectious diseases at St. David's Medical Center, said while he thinks the guidance is an exciting first step, he also believes people should remain cautious.

"They've been very consistent about their guidance, especially, you know, over the past nine months or so about the things that we need to do to remain safe. And that's wearing a mask, avoiding large crowds, not getting together with other folks in indoor settings that are poorly ventilated," Metzger said.

As for spring break, Metzger said he is still concerned but not as much as last year because multiple companies have vaccines out now and people are starting to get vaccinated.

"I'm a little less concerned, but it's still concerning behavior," he said. "I think the message overall is that we're not done yet, but there is that light at the end of the tunnel and we are going to be vaccinating large numbers of people [in] March, April and May. We are going to get significantly further in our goals of vaccinating and getting toward herd immunity over the next few months. So, we're really going to turn quite a large corner, even just this month, getting this month behind us."

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