Last week, Arlington restaurants, bars and entertainment venues saw crowds unseen in over a year.
Live music rang through the air at The Tipsy Oak in downtown Arlington. Visitors packed bar patios and the Arlington Entertainment District as people eagerly celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. And after months of COVID-19 restrictions, many unmasked faces could be seen.
Arlington residents, students and business owners have had mixed feelings about Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that lifted the statewide mask mandate and allowed businesses to operate at 100% capacity as of March 10. Health officials have criticized Abbott’s decision and warned against loosening restrictions too early.
Despite differing opinions on the timing of the executive order, decreasing infection rates and increasing vaccine availability have led many to perceive the beginning of the end for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, people traveled from out of town and out of state to visit the city and explore its entertainment attractions.
Elm Mott, Texas residents Darin and Ronnie Gilbreath said they made the nearly hour and a half trip to Arlington for work and to visit a friend. They spent time at Texas Live while in the city.
Darin said he doesn’t feel any less safe with the mandate lifted and does not think one should have been instituted in the first place.
Tucson, Arizona resident Michael Garaguso said he chose to vacation in Arlington when he heard Abbott lifted the mask mandate in the state. He said he visited some of the main attractions like Six Flags and Texas Live, and he planned to visit the stadiums and restaurants while in town.
Garaguso said he was unsure of the timing of Abbott’s executive order, but he liked leaving the option of wearing a mask up to individuals.
Arlington resident Brian Simpson said he prefers that people wear masks, but he does not have an issue with Texas lifting the mandate.
Simpson said he believes the pandemic will end in the U.S. by the end of summer as vaccination rates increase. He hopes to begin traveling soon.
Since peaking in January, COVID-19 cases in Tarrant County have steadily dropped, with weekly cases and bed occupancy at their lowest percentage since September. However, cases still remain in the thousands.
Lt. Richard Fegan, Arlington Fire Department public information officer, said the department still encourages citizens to exercise safety measures in order to help end the pandemic. While hospitalization, testing and positive case numbers are all declining, the full effects of lifting the mask mandate are yet to be seen, he said.
To return to normal, the U.S. would need about 70% of its population to either have COVID-19 antibodies or a vaccine, he said.
As of Sunday, about 10.5% of Texans are fully vaccinated. Only two other states in the country have a lower vaccination rate. In Tarrant County, 8% of residents are fully vaccinated.
While Abbott has relaxed restrictions across the state, Fegan said the fire department has not let down its guard.
“No, we haven’t become more lax on it yet,” he said. “I know that the mandate put out by the governor may lead to indicating that we are as a whole, but we’re not out of the woods yet, and that’s a fact.”
Despite the controversial timing, Abbott’s order may provide a boost to local businesses who have operated at reduced capacity since last March.
Over the past year, Arlington businesses have weathered closures, reduced capacities and a loss of revenue because of the pandemic. In February, they endured extreme winter weather and an ensuing water boil notice. Now they must decide how to proceed without state mandated COVID-19 restrictions.
Jambo’s BBQ owner Paul Lovato said he is pro-mask but believes now is the right time to lift the mask mandate and to allow businesses to operate at full capacity.
“I think it’s time,” Lovato said. “I think the public has grown very weary of this whole situation. I know it’s put a lot of stress and taken a big toll on a lot of businesses and a lot of personal lives.”
Jambo’s BBQ no longer requires customers or employees to wear masks, but Lovato said he encourages his front-of-house staff to wear them. He said the decision to remove the mask requirement for his business was made to be congruent with Abbott’s order.
“They said no more masks, I took the signs down,” Lovato said. “That was it.”
Lovato said his business has seen steady improvement since the beginning of the year, and he is unsure how much to credit Abbott’s executive order for the success. He has noticed more customers dining in, though the majority elect to continue wearing masks. He said that so far there has not been much confrontation from customers on either side of the mask debate.
While restrictions have relaxed throughout the city in accordance with the state order, UTA has announced that it will keep its COVID-19 protocols in effect at least until May 31. While on campus, people will still be required to wear masks. Classrooms and dining spaces will remain modified to promote social distancing.
Philip Sanusi, public health and political science senior, said that removing the mask mandate will put people in danger, particularly those who have to work in contact with others. He said a more appropriate time to lift the mandate would be after the majority of Texans have received vaccines.
Sanusi said he believes the end of the pandemic is near because of the progress made in vaccine availability. The first thing he wants to do is take his mask off to better communicate with others.
“Since I have an accent, it’s impossible for me to talk with my mask,” he said. “It just makes it double difficult for the people to understand me.”
Biology sophomore Andres Galdamez said opening while vaccination numbers are so low is irresponsible and puts people at risk. In spite of relaxed restrictions, Galdamez said he believes people are putting in the effort to overcome the disease.
Galdamez said he wants to explore places like Japan, but he’s hesitant because he doesn’t want to seem like an American traveling and spreading the virus. Once the pandemic is under control, he would feel more comfortable with the idea of traveling abroad.
While UTA has yet to announce plans to resume in-person classes in upcoming semesters, universities like UT-Austin have said there is a “very high” chance of in-person learning in the fall.
Galdamez said he sees the possibility of the pandemic ending soon and hopes to see a sense of normalcy return to UTA.
“I do believe that it’s getting pretty close to the end,” he said. “I’m looking forward to a normal semester in school where I don’t have to have a mask on, where I can go to class, communicate with my classmates and everything goes back to normal. I’m really hoping that it’s coming up.”