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Businesses' bid to enforce Covid safety rules stymied by Texas governor's decision to scrap mask mandate

"This could put people in danger," a security expert says.
Image: Customers sit outside of Starbucks on March 3, 2021 in Austin, Texas.
Customers sit outside of Starbucks on March 3, 2021 in Austin, Texas.Montinique Monroe / Getty Images

Working the door at a business in Texas that still requires masks against Covid-19 could be hazardous to your health — and not just because of the virus, top security experts said Thursday.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s sudden decision this week to lift the mask mandate and other coronavirus restrictions has undermined the ability of these companies to enforce their own rules for protecting staffers and customers, they said.

“This ripping off the Band-Aid approach is not good,” said Brian Higgins, a security consultant who also teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “It puts companies trying to enforce mask rules in a tight spot. They used to be able to tell customers they were just enforcing the state rules. Now they can’t say that.”

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Then there are Texas’ gun laws, which allow licensed gun owners to bring their weapons along when they go shopping at most stores.

“I’m a Second Amendment guy, but I would not want to be that person working the door and having to tell somebody to mask up in a legal carry state like Texas,” said Higgins, a former police chief of Bergen County, New Jersey. “Yeah, things are supposed to be getting better but as we come out of this (pandemic), there are still a lot of people on edge, pissed off, angry.”

Just a few days ago, Higgins said, a police officer working security at a high school basketball game in New Orleans was shot and killed allegedly by a man he’d just escorted out for refusing to wear a mask.

“There are lots of people under stress,” he said. “This could put people in danger.”

Chris Dorn of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit that specializes in helping school systems with security, said Abbott’s move “definitely makes it more challenging for store operators to enforce their own mask mandates.”

“It muddies the water and it gives a customer who refuses to wear a mask a means to challenge a store manager by saying, 'well, the state isn’t requiring them,'” he said. “It also makes it harder to enforce mask rules at other places, like schools. While I hesitate to say it could lead to violence, it does have the potential for turning the entryways of these places into trigger points.”

In response, Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said the governor has repeatedly urged Texans to act prudently during the pandemic.

“Just like ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service,’ businesses have every right to require that their patrons wear masks while on their property," she said. "Texans and Americans alike have learned and mastered over the past year the safe practices to protect themselves and their loved ones from Covid, and do not need the government to tell them how to do so."

Earlier Thursday, Abbott insisted “the change in Texas wasn't all that much different from where we were before for a couple reasons.”

“First, we are still strongly advocating that every Texan follow best practices,” the governor said on Fox News. “We still strongly recommend that people do wear a mask.”

The companies in Texas that continue to maintain their own mask mandates include well-known national brands such as Starbucks, Target, Macy’s, Costco, Walmart and the Kroger grocery chain.

NBC News reached out to these companies to find out how they plan to enforce their mask mandates now that Texas no longer requires them.

Starbucks responded with a statement from spokesman Jory Mendes.

“Based on the guidance from the CDC and other public health experts, Starbucks will continue to require all partners and customers to wear a mask while inside our stores – continuing the requirement we instituted in July 2020,” part of the statement said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We will continue to make decisions rooted in facts and science, and we are committed to meeting or exceeding public health mandates.”

When pressed to explain how the company would continue to enforce the mask-wearing requirement, Mendes said in an email that staffers have been trained “how to refuse service with respect and kindness.”

“Further, as they have since July, all company-operated stores continue to have clear signage on the front door that clearly states customers are required to wear a mask, regardless of state/local mandates,” Mendes wrote.

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Target also responded with a prepared statement. But it did not address the enforcement question.

“Those who have been vaccinated for coronavirus are still required to wear a mask and follow all social distancing guidelines, in line with current CDC guidance,” it said.

Manufacturing companies that employ thousands of Texans such as Toyota and General Motors are also continuing to require that masks be worn in the workplace, according to published reports.

Abbott’s decision was harshly criticized Wednesday as “Neanderthal thinking” by President Joe Biden and some of Texas’ top doctors warned it could spark yet another surge in coronavirus infections and deaths.

“Now is not the time to release all restrictions,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned earlier.