Bexar County requires face masks in businesses as coronavirus surges, possibly paving the way for other counties

Bexar County requires face masks in businesses as coronavirus surges, possibly paving the way for other counties
A restaurant during dinner service in San Antonio. (Source: Christopher Lee for The Texas Tribune)

With Gov. Greg Abbott’s apparent blessing, Bexar County has imposed a new mask rule for local businesses, saying they must require employees and customers to wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible. The move appears to open a new way for local officials to require mask use in certain public spaces after Abbott stymied prior efforts by local officials to put the onus on residents.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff's order comes after Abbott issued an executive order on June 3 banning local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don't wear masks in public.

Wolff's order states that, starting Monday and running through the end of the month, businesses in Bexar County must require face masks "where six feet of separation is not feasible" before the business risks facing a fine of up to $1,000.

The order also states that, consistent with Abbott’s executive order, “no civil or criminal penalty will be imposed on individuals for failure to wear a face covering.”

“Judge Wolff’s order is not inconsistent with the Governor’s executive order,” said John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott. “Our office urges officials and the public to adopt and follow the health protocols for businesses established by doctors” that are available online.

In an interview Wednesday with KWTX, Abbott said that local officials just needed to read the plan issued by the state to see the orders they could issue in compliance with state directives.

Wolff "finally read what we had written and what they now realize they are capable of doing is that we want to make sure individual liberty is not infringed upon by government, and hence government cannot require individuals to wear masks," Abbott said.

“Local governments can require stores and business to require masks. That’s what was authorized in my plan,” Abbott added. “Businesses … they’ve always had the opportunity and the ability, just like they can require people to wear shoes and shirts, these businesses can require people to wear face masks if they come into their businesses. Now local officials are just now realizing that that was authorized.”

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Wednesday that he's already looking into Wolff's order to see if the county will follow suit.

“I’m pleased that the Governor has changed his mind. I’m asking our county lawyers and business leaders to look at this and plan to make a proposal for the Commissioner’s Court to look at very soon,” Jenkins said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said they are checking with the county attorney’s office on Wolff’s order, adding that “we’re not any safer today than we were in March. There is no vaccine. No cure. We remain very concerned about the trajectory of hospital admissions.”

On Tuesday, nine mayors from Texas’ biggest cities wrote a letter to Abbott, urging him to grant them the authority to mandate face masks in their own cities in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office had already warned officials in big cities, including San Antonio, to roll back “unlawful” local emergency orders that featured stricter coronavirus restrictions than those of the state, while hinting of lawsuits if they do not.

“When people go out and about, as they’re walking around town, they don’t need to wear a face mask, but when they do go into a store or other business, those businesses can require, and that’s exactly what it looks like local governments will begin to do,” Abbott told KWTX.

Mark Escott, the interim health authority for Austin and Travis County, said that the city and the county are interested in how they can better enforce the wearing of face mask.

“We certainly do not believe that that there’s any role for criminalization of some of these items, but it is helpful for us to be able to inform restaurant and bars and other businesses that it’s okay for you to require masking. That it’s enforceable, if you decide as as your business to not allow people in without masks,” Escott said Wednesday. “I think it’s an absolutely responsible thing to do for businesses to take a stand, not only to protect other customers in that business but to protect their employees.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who was among the mayors who signed the letter, expressed disagreement Friday with Abbott’s approach to reopening Texas businesses, saying the approach has led to an increase in hospitalizations in Austin since Memorial Day weekend.

"I think it would be really helpful if the governor would enforce his recommendation," he told The Texas Tribune. "People should be wearing face masks and maintaining six-foot distance. I wish he would enforce that. Because I think it's a confusing message when he recommends that, but doesn't tell people they have to do that. It sounds almost like it doesn't really matter. If the governor is not going to enforce it, then I sure would hope that he would allow local jurisdictions to decide to enforce it, if that's something that they want to do locally."

Adler said he wants to collaborate with the governor and other Texas cities to support the reopening of businesses while keeping Texans safe.

“The governor’s made it very difficult to enforce these by specifically opening up and describing what the allowed behaviors are,” he said. “So he’s made it very difficult to enforce these rules, which is why we want to work with the governor. And the hope is that the governor will help other cities by either enforcing his recommendations or letting cities enforce these recommendations, all with an eye to doing everything we can to help preserve his reopening of the economy.”

Patrick Svitek, Meena Venkataramanan, and Reese Oxner contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, has been a financial supporter of the 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/06/17/bexar-county-mask-order-coronavirus/.

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