Credit…Mark Felix for The New York Times
HOUSTON — Orders requiring masks and limiting the occupancy of restaurants and other businesses were lifted across Texas on Wednesday, a move that federal health officials and medical experts said was premature while the state was still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.
Businesses are still allowed to require employees and customers to cover their faces and limit the number of people they allow inside. Cities can choose to keep limits in place in municipal facilities, and masks remain required on federal property.
When Gov. Greg Abbott announced the changes last week, he argued that he was pushing back against the economic devastation wrought by months of limitations on movement and commerce. In a news conference at a restaurant in Lubbock, Mr. Abbott, a Republican, noted the hindrances for workers and small businesses.
“This must end,” he said. “It is now time to open Texas 100 percent.”
Hours before restrictions were lifted across the state, City officials in Austin announced they planned to defy the governor’s new orders and would continue to impose a citywide mask mandate.
The open defiance puts Austin, the state capitol and Democrat-led city, on yet another likely collision course with the Republican-led state Legislature following years of clashes on a range of issues, from homeless regulations to police funding.
A city council member Greg Casar, who co-sponsored an ordinance last year that authorized the city’s health director to establish Covid-19 public health mandates, said in a telephone interview Tuesday night that city officials believe their stance is “legal and it’s right.”
“If the state chooses to sue us, then it’s basically them going out of their way to undermine the health of Texas,” said Mr. Casar. “My hope is that they focus on vaccine distribution rather than messing with Austin and putting more lives at risk.”
It was not immediately clear whether the city can legally enforce its mask mandate, which calls for a fine up to $2,000 if violated. Mr. Abbott, in his decree last week, said no jurisdiction in the state can impose fees or jail time if residents choose to not wear a mask.
But in San Antonio, moments after Mr. Abbott’s announcement, patrons at Barflys removed the plexiglass dividers separating themselves from the bartenders.
At Barflys on Tuesday, an hour before the mask mandate was to expire, Amber Jowers, 32, was the bartender on duty. She welcomed the policy change. From now on, she will no longer wear a mask at work, she said.
“And we’re taking the sign down at midnight,” she added. “We have to get back to normal now.”
Barflys is a softly lit pub with a pool table, dartboard, and a slot machine. Metallica, Salt-N-Pepa, and the Texas Tornados play from the sound system.
On the smokey back patio, Sophie Bojorquez, 47, sat at a table with friends. She is a vaccinated nurse and a self-proclaimed anti-masker.
“I’m happy about the governor’s decision. The masks impeded the herd immunity we need. Now they want to vax so fast,” she said, shaking her head.
The patio bartender, Britt Harasmisz, 24, said that most of her customers didn’t wear a mask even before the mandate ended. And though her employer decided that Barflys would no longer require face covers, she said that she would continue to wear one while working.
“A lot of people have been vaccinated, Governor Abbott was vaccinated, but a lot of us on the front lines have not,” she said. “I’m going to wear a mask everywhere I go.”
The move to open Texas has faced intense resistance. The governor’s medical advisers have said that they were not involved in the decision. And federal health officials and some experts have raised concerns that the moves, especially repealing the mask mandate, could intensify the spread of the virus while the vaccination process is underway. Texas, which is averaging about 5,500 new cases a day, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.
Lina Hidalgo, the county judge in Harris County, which includes Houston, has argued that lifting the mask mandate means workers must be the ones to enforce rules in retail establishments and restaurants.
“We know better than to let our guard down simply because a level of government selected an arbitrary date to issue an all-clear,” Ms. Hidalgo, a Democrat and a persistent critic of Mr. Abbott, said in an op-ed column published this week by Time magazine. “I am working to clearly explain to the residents of my county that we will spare ourselves unnecessary death and suffering if we just stick with it for a little bit longer.”
Bert Rossel, 39, stopped in for a drink at Barflys on Tuesday evening. He said he had known the pub’s owner for many years and worked for him at one time. Mr. Rossel is in the insurance business nowadays. He said he believed that the pandemic had been hyped on social media as another distraction, or as he calls it, “the latest hot topic.”
“It’s survival of the fittest,” Mr. Rossel said. “My B.M.I. is higher than normal. Obese people are more susceptible to corona, but it’s been over a year. I would have gotten it already.”
As the evening advanced, the patrons at Barflys drank beer and downed shots, smoked and gossiped, enjoying each other’s company. No one paid attention when, at midnight, Ms. Jowers pulled the sign from the front door that read, “MASKS REQUIRED UPON ENTRY.”
Rick Rojas, James Dobbins and