Mask On: Life-saving Local Decision Making in Austin

Written by Ananya Kodali, Dipika Pujara, Priya Mahableshwarkar

On March 3, 2021, Texas’ mask mandate, which had been in place for eight months, was repealed by Governor Greg Abbott. This means that there is no longer a government incentive in place for businesses in Texas to require face coverings on their premises. In the 20 days that followed, Abbott’s decision elicited a mixed reaction from political leaders; while some states, like Wyoming, have followed in the footsteps of the country’s second-largest state, President Biden called the decision an exhibit of “Neanderthal thinking.” Abbott cited lowering hospitalization rates and the rising vaccinated population as justification for his decision. In a statement, Abbott still encouraged Texans to follow medical advice and safe practices. Without an official mandate in place, though, the freedom to define ‘safe practices’ has been returned to the people. 

Given this freedom, rather than follow the state’s example, the city of Austin doubled down on its own citywide mask mandate to ensure the safety of its citizens.

While the legal basis for the city’s order is still being challenged, individuals in Austin did not hesitate to act decisively and enact change at the level it matters most — locally.

Wearing a mask is not an act self-protection, but one of selflessness. This spirit of communal responsibility has been exemplified by individual people even when the state failed. 

Austin is a college town, and its student population contains some of the most outspoken opponents of the mask repeal.

“It’s a decision that will cause unnecessary death and pain for Texas residents,” said Annika Jyothi, a UT Austin freshman who was “shocked and disheartened” by the governor’s decision.

For Huy Le, a Nursing student, the decision seemed like an insult to healthcare professionals who, this time last year, were risking their lives working through mask shortages. “It’s personal to me because it’s helped save so many lives,” Huy said.

Within days of Abbott’s announcement, student leaders had created a joint resolution encouraging the University to maintain the mask mandate. “We got together for two hours and wrote the entire day,” explained Huy, who helped draft the legislation. Soon after, a petition in support of the resolution was released to the student body, and it garnered almost three thousand signatures.

Ultimately, while students have the freedom to share their opinions, university administration has the final say about campus regulation. In this case, UT followed both the wishes of its students and medical experts: the mask mandate, as of March 20, 2021, is still in place for all UT students, employees, and visitors. Annika, like thousands of students who signed the petition, is thankful. The efforts of student government and UT administration demonstrate that “they do care about the wellbeing of their students,” she said. 

While UT’s decision might upset some, as a university, they are protected from any backlash by immense institutional safety nets. This is a privilege small businesses cannot afford. Small businesses have been hit hard throughout the past year, with the Federal Reserve reporting that three in ten businesses in the United States are at risk for being shut down after the pandemic. Shop owners have had to balance the safety of their stores with the success of their businesses. With the mask mandate repealed, there is no government guidance that these businesses can refer to, and any decision would upset a set of customers.

Nina Berenato, owner of Nina Berenato Jewelry in Austin, TX, has prioritized the well-being of her customers and employees in the face of Abbott’s policy change. From the start of the pandemic, Berenato has chosen to abide by CDC guidelines by enforcing social distancing, requiring hand sanitizing and masks, and cutting down store capacity. For Berenato, these preventative measures have directly impacted the “trying on” process of jewelry selection. She shares that “people are less able to envision how they might appear with the jewelry on,” and “less inclined to try on items because they have to sanitize in order to do so…larger earrings are problematic with masks because they can get caught.” 

Despite knowing the costs of maintaining safety precautions, Berenato did her best to “find a happy medium between remaining open, functioning and keeping [her] staff, customers and the community safe.”  She was empathetic and responsive to her staff when they expressed concerns about unruly customers, especially in a mask-less environment.  Berenato is referring to the advice of health professionals for guidance on safe re-opening: she said that she would lift her own store’s mask mandate “as soon as the CDC recommends it.” Though Berenato was singularly responsible for the decision to adhere to safety guidelines, she was anything but selfish in her decision making.

When Governor Abbott made the executive decision to lift pandemic-prevention restrictions such as the mask mandate, he placed the power of abating the spread of the pandemic in the hands of Texan citizens. Some small business owners like Berenato used this power to maintain the mandate at the scale of their businesses. Similarly, schools like UT Austin reinstated the mask mandate for their student and staff population. Soon after, legislators in Austin, Texas took this power and utilized it to reinstate the mandate across the entire city. Austin’s mayor, Mayor Steve Adler posted on his Twitter account that “No matter what happens then, we will continue to be guided by doctors and data.” Adler is refusing to let the state-wide mandate repeal affect the progress his city has been making, at least until the next court date. This stand does not come without consequences; Adler is facing backlash for his decision as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sues him for not enforcing Abbott’s state mask laws. Paxton gave the city of Austin an ultimatum on March 10, 2021. Paxton requested Adler to repeal his local orders or “on behalf of the state of Texas, I will sue you.”

Rather than succumbing to Paxton’s request to end the mandates, Adler continues to protect his citizens.

Austin will proceed to go to court on March 26, 2021, when they will present their case to District Judge Lora Livingston. Regardless of how the trial goes, Austin officials see this two-week extension as a triumph as it allows more citizens to get vaccinated and prevents the spread of the virus during spring break. As the cumulative number of cases in the country increases daily, Austin, Texas is doing its part in mitigating the spread of the virus, with or without the support of the state government.

To the students, business owners, and residents of Austin, and of all Texas cities, this is a sobering reminder that local organizing and individual decision-making matter. Wear masks. Fight for your stores, your campuses, and your corners of the world, no matter how small, to be safe because — as Abbott’s decision and the politicization of masks at the cost of safety have shown us — the consequences can be life or death. 

Edited by Akila Muthukumar

Nina Berenato Jewelry can be found at the Domain in Austin, TX and has been featured by  artists such as Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, and more.

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