While the Denton Chamber of Commerce is encouraging local businesses to operate at their discretion following Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement Tuesday ending mandated COVID-19 precautions, the implications for city convention business remain unclear.
In a statement Wednesday, the chamber praised Abbott’s decision to end the statewide mask mandate and allow businesses to operate at 100% capacity beginning next Wednesday, but cautioned that a spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations could mean another mandated rollback in the future.
“While we applaud the decision to allow business owners to run their businesses as they see fit, we continue to be aware that any potential rise in COVID hospitalizations could trigger another rollback on area businesses,” the statement reads. “The Chamber and its leadership continue to encourage each of our members to enjoy the freedom to operate normally but to do so cautiously by doing what you feel is reasonable and necessary in order to remain free of mandated rollbacks that painfully impact our local economy and community.”
When asked for a phone interview Wednesday morning, chamber president Erica Pangburn declined and sent the prepared statement via email.
As for how the rescinded order will impact the city’s policies on hosting conferences at the 70,000-square-foot Denton Convention Center in the Embassy Suites by Hilton hotel, officials say they are uncertain. So far, the staff has followed guidance from the governor, enforcing masks, social distancing and 75% capacity limits, said Tania Hunt, national sales manager for the Denton Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“My director and VP are out of state, so we haven’t talked about it, but hopefully we will have gathered maybe Monday afternoon [to discuss it],” Hunt said Wednesday afternoon. “It depends also on the direction of the local government as well, and I don’t know that there’s been direction yet.”
Under the 11th Order of Council adopted in late 2020, businesses were required to maintain health and safety plans and signage that incorporated GA-29, Abbott’s statewide mask mandate. But GA-34 will supersede that order, meaning businesses no longer will be required to maintain those policies beginning March 10, according to a news release from the city Wednesday evening.
“Due to provisions within the governor’s order, city officials cannot impose COVID-19 restrictions that are inconsistent with GA-34,” Mayor Gerard Hudspeth said in the release. “However, we strongly encourage and continue to ask our residents and businesses to practice those same habits that have helped reduce the spread of COVID-19. We’re all in this together and need to look out for each other.”
Jeff Pritts, the general manager of Embassy Suites’ Denton location, said the convention center is owned and operated by the hotel, and events at the center would be subject to hotel policies, which are not changing despite Abbott’s order. Center seating will remain at a reduced capacity, as Embassy Suites is continuing to follow guidance from the Texas Hotel Lodging Association and the hotel’s operator, O’Reilly Hospitality Management, Pritts said.
“We still have everything that we had before in effect — the mask mandate, social distancing — those will continue to stay the same,” Pritts said.
Pritts does anticipate the mask mandate being rescinded could make enforcing the hotel’s policies more difficult, but the hotel has the right to refuse service to those who won’t follow hotel guidelines. The hotel will not check customers in, serve them breakfast or serve them at the hotel bar or restaurant without a face covering, Pritts said.
“It makes life a little more difficult because now customers won’t want to wear [masks], not that they did before, so it’ll be up to us to continue to encourage them to have them,” Pritts said.
The hotel likely will update its signage to clarify hotel policies, but other than that, operations will continue as they have been, Pritts said.
“It was easier with the state [mandate] because it was just more common everywhere, but for us as a company, it’ll be business as usual where we will continue to mandate it until this epidemic is further away,” Pritts said.