Masks are now optional for everyone in Austin and Travis County following a May 18 executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott banning local authorities from enforcing mask mandates.

Prior to Abbott's order, the city and county announced updated local rules May 18 to reflect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest guidelines on masks, allowing fully vaccinated individuals to go maskless in most scenarios. Unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people were still asked to wear masks.

The local orders were issued under the jurisdictions of Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County's interim health authority. Austin-Travis County officials had leaned on Escott's authority to enforce masking since Abbott first banned local governments from imposing mask mandates earlier this year.

However, with Abbott's most recent order—issued just hours after Austin and Travis County updated their rules—Abbott also prevented local health authorities from enforcing such requirements.

On May 21, Escott signed a notice that the health authority rules would become recommendations, in compliance with Abbott's order, signaling an intention to avoid the legal challenges Austin and Travis County have incurred from the state in past months.

"When we engage in battle between the city and state, the message becomes about the battle and not about the message, and the message that we want people to hear is that if you're vaccinated completely, then you're relatively safe ... however, those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated need to continue to protect themselves," Escott said at a May 21 news conference. "I believe that by avoiding a long legal battle, we can focus our efforts on the battle in front of us, which is ensuring that folks are vaccinated."

Although masks are not required in public areas of the city, businesses are still able to enforce masking on their own property.

"Businesses have the right to determine the conditions of entry," Escott said. "If a business has a 'Mask required' sign, masks are required as a condition of entry. If somebody enters without a mask on, they're trespassing and can be asked to leave."