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Texas is facing a wave of event cancellations after GOP governor ended mask mandate

At least four organizations canceled conferences or conventions in Austin, citing health concerns after Texas ended its statewide mask mandate earlier this month. The cancellations cost the Hilton Austin hotel $350,000 in revenue, according to Austin Convention Enterprises, a city-created corporation that owns and manages the hotel.

"These were rooms that were already on the books, and largely what we saw was fallout, ironically, from the governor opening the economy," said Joe Bolash, Hilton Austin general manager, during a March 16 Austin Convention Enterprises board meeting. "It was groups that were not comfortable returning to a fully opened economy where there was no mask mandate in place."

Gov. Greg Abbott ended the statewide mask mandate and capacity limits on businesses on March 10, pointing to fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases in the state. Public health experts and political opponents lamented the move, saying it was too soon before the majority of the state was vaccinated against the virus or even eligible for a shot.

Jimmy Flannigan, ACE president and former Austin City Council member, said these cancellations are the latest blow to the hospitality industry in Austin, which has already suffered severe losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Flannigan declined to share the names of the organizations that canceled the events. However, he said three of them "had relationships in the medical field" and were concerned with "the message that medical groups might be sending" if they hosted events in Texas.

"This is the worst possible time for any part of the hotel industry to be [losing] business," Flannigan said. "We're at the very first few upticks of the recovery of the hotel industry and tourism, which is both important to the hotels themselves, and to the many, many, many jobs that those hotels create in Central Texas."

Flannigan said consumer sentiment and confidence in their safety heavily impacts business.

"Nothing will help the return of the economy more than the prevention and the public health requirements to arrest the spread of this virus," he said. "And I hope that the governor lifting the mass mandate ends up not being a horrible decision as it relates to the health of Texas."

Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Thursday, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology announced it was canceling the in-person portion of its annual conference that was to be held in Austin due to the end of Texas' COVID-19-related precautions.

Conference organizers were working with Hilton Austin, the JW Marriott Austin and Fairmont Austin, but it's unclear if it is one of the four events that ACE said were canceled.

Devin Jopp, CEO of the organization, said in an interview that it's already a challenge planning safe events during the pandemic, but the masking mandate ending "felt like the rug being pulled out from underneath us." He said there was no way an organization dedicated to preventing the spread of infectious diseases could risk bringing its members to a state without a mask mandate.

"The policies that Gov. Abbott moved the state into just created a condition we couldn't work around," he said. "We think it was premature, and I would say that goes with a lot of other sentiment out there."

The event was to be held partially online and scaled back from its usual projected attendance of 6,000 to 1,000 due to the pandemic.

Greg Casar, an Austin City Council member, said the lack of a mask mandate isn't just driving business from the state, but it is putting pressure on public-facing workers, including those in the hospitality industry, to enforce mask-wearing in businesses.

"Greg Abbott didn't help the economy when he lifted the mask rule, he only helped the virus," he said. "That's clearly bad for workers, but it's bad for business, too. And you can see that clearly with the cancellation of these conferences."

Even after Texas ended its mask mandate, Austin and Travis County have continued to require masks. In response, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a suit demanding that local officials end the mandate. A final hearing to decide the case will be Friday.

Both Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown have said even if the mask orders are shot down in court this week, they are glad they were able to keep the mask mandate in the meantime, allowing more residents to get vaccinated.

Casar says the city will continue pursuing ways to keep masks on Austin residents.

"We will not stop doing everything we can to protect health and safety. So even if our mask rules get taken down, we will continue to try to find other ways to require masks," he said. "We will continue to work to make sure that everybody wears a mask or that every business requires masks."

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chair, and Fairmont Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warns Austin to drop mask mandate by 6 p.m. or be sued

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is threatening to sue Travis County and the City of Austin if officials don't back down on local orders that continue to require masks despite Gov. Greg Abbott ending the statewide mask mandate on Wednesday.

Austin and Travis County public health leaders recently announced they would continue to require masks, even though Abbott forbade local authorities from superseding his order. Only county judges can order COVID-19 restrictions if hospitalizations from the virus rise above 15% of the bed capacity in that hospital region for seven straight days.

"The decision to require masks or otherwise impose COVID-19-related operating limits is expressly reserved to private businesses on their own premises. It does not rest with jurisdictions like the city of Austin or Travis County or their local health authorities," Paxton wrote in a statement Wednesday. "We have already taken you to court under similar circumstances. You lost. If you continue to flout the law in this manner, we'll take you to court again and you will lose again."

Paxton gave local authorities until 6 p.m. to come into compliance with the governor's order, rescind local COVID-19 mandates and retract related public statements.

"Otherwise, on behalf of the state of Texas," Paxton wrote, "I will sue you."

Paxton's office successfully challenged Austin and Travis officials' attempts to restrict holiday restaurant operations around New Year's.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sues electricity retailer Griddy over exorbitant bills

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Monday against electricity retailer Griddy, claiming it misled customers using deceptive business practices after some customers reported bills costing tens of thousands of dollars.

These charges were incurred during Texas' devastating winter storm that nearly shut down Texas' electrical grid and sent energy demand skyrocketing. The lawsuit targets Griddy's auto-billing system, which began drafting money out of customer's accounts as the bills rolled in.

"Griddy misled Texans and signed them up for services which, in a time of crisis, resulted in individual Texans each losing thousands of dollars," Paxton said in a statement. "As Texans struggled to survive this winter storm, Griddy made the suffering even worse as it debited outrageous amounts each day."

Paxton noted this is the first lawsuit his office has filed against power companies after the widespread outages two weeks ago. A Houston-based law firm accused the company of price gouging and filed a separate class-action lawsuit last week.

"We are aware of the lawsuit filed by the Texas Attorney General against Griddy," company spokesperson Lauren Valdes said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. "We do not agree with the claims alleged in the complaint, and plan to vigorously defend against it."

Griddy was effectively shut down by Texas' electrical grid operator because it missed required payments. The retailer said last week the Electric Reliability Council of Texas ignored requests for emergency help. An ERCOT spokesperson said payment breach information is confidential and declined to offer specifics.

ERCOT is $2.5 billion short in payments from retail power providers and others, Bloomberg reported Monday. It has covered some debt with revenues from another market, but remains $1.7 billion short.

If ERCOT can't finance the underpayments, those could eventually have to be covered by market participants, including consumers, Bloomberg reported.

If Ercot cannot come up with financing to cover the underpayments, the debt could end up being shared by everyone in the Texas market, including consumers. Amid the fallout, seven of Ercot's board members have resigned. The head of the Public Utility Commission of Texas resigned Monday.

Griddy customers will be absorbed by other electrical providers that are contracted with the PUC. But it's unclear if Griddy customers will still be required to pay their bills. Gov. Greg Abbott promised relief on Feb. 22 but hasn't provided details. Griddy declined to answer questions about what responsibilities their customers hold.

Griddy customers paid a $10 monthly membership and in turn were passed wholesale power prices. These prices fluctuate but usually are cheaper than retail prices. However, unlike fixed-rate electricity plan users, Griddy customers are susceptible to market changes due to increased demand or reduced supply.

Paxton's lawsuit claims the company understood the risk this posed to customers but misled them through its marketing.

Some customers have reported bills costing thousands of dollars, some surpassing $15,000. The retailer places the blame for the exorbitant prices on Texas' Public Utility Commission, saying they were due to the commission jacking up wholesale prices.

The PUC raised the wholesale market price of electricity to $9,000 per megawatt hour for days during the height of the winter storm in an attempt to entice power generators to produce more electricity. The average cost per megawatt hour is $35.

The PUC did not respond to a request for an interview by publication time.

Brazos Electric Power Cooperative Inc., Texas' largest power cooperative, filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday after incurring $2.1 billion in combined charges owed to ERCOT, according to court documents filed on Monday. Those charges were due in days.

"The consequences of these prices were devastating," the Waco-based company wrote in court filings.

The company, which lists its assets and liabilities as between $1 billion to $10 billion, said it was doing strong financially at the start of February. The notion that it'd be filing for bankruptcy weeks later would have been "unfathomable," it stated in court documents.

Clifton Karnei, executive vice president of Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, signed the bankruptcy submissions. He sat on ERCOT's board of directors until he resigned last week.

Brazos Electric is owned and made up by 16 member cooperatives, which each have their own members.

Brazos Electric officials decided to declare bankruptcy rather than "foist this catastrophic 'black swan' financial event" onto its members and their customers.

Erin Douglas contributed to this story.

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