Where East Texas counties stand on enforcement of Gov. Abbott’s face-mask order

East Texas sheriffs say they won't be enforcing Executive Order 29
Gov. Greg Abbotts' statewide order requiring most Texans went into effect at 12:01 p.m. today. Some counties across East Texas weighed in with their thoughts an
Updated: Jul. 3, 2020 at 10:21 PM CDT
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EAST TEXAS, Texas (KLTV/KTRE) - Several East Texas counties are pushing back against Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent directives that require most Texans to wear facial coverings in public spaces and ban groups of 10 or more people.

With Texas being considered a hotspot for COVID-19 cases, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced an executive order requiring people to wear mask to help stop the spread of the virus.

“One of the best ways to keep businesses open while also slowing the spread is for everyone to wear a face covering like this when they go out.”

County judges and sheriff offices’ weighed in on the decision today. In a Facebook video, Nacogdoches Sheriff Jason Bridges says, he will not enforce the order’s citations policy.

“The Nacogdoches Sheriff’s Office is not going to be issuing citations for not wearing masks. This order clearly states that you have to give a warning…first of all we are not keeping a database of people who are wear a mask and who are not. We don’t have the time or the energy to do that.”

Just to name a few:

Smith County states they will encourage compliance regarding wearing a mask and will not be issuing citations as well.

“If you live in the city, I cannot speak for what other agencies are going to do or how they are going to enforce these orders, “Bridges said.

Upshur county says they will not enforce the governor’s order because it strips police of enforcing compliance with the law.

“This requirement is not intended to be punitive, instead we need everyone to do their part to help to slow the spread. That’s why the first violation of this standard is just a warning,” Abbott said.

Bridges says he will disperse public gatherings in public spaces within the Nacogdoches county.

“We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast, there is little margin for error. If we want to avoid lockdowns, if we want to protect those that we care about, we need all Texans to join this effort.”

The mask requirement stays in place until the governor decides to lift it.

The Gregg County Sheriff’s Office says they want to start with education of its citizens, and requesting voluntary compliance with mask wearing.

“First, please understand if a business refuses you service for not wearing a mask they have the right to do so,” the sheriff’s office wrote on its Facebook page.

If enforcement is necessary, they want to start with a discussion, but written warnings or citations are possible, at the discretion of the deputy.

“Second, if the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office is placed in a position where enforcement is necessary we will start with education and requesting voluntary compliance,” the post said. “If Gregg Country Sheriff’s Office Deputies encounter an individual that refuses to voluntarily comply, verbal warnings and or written warnings will follow. As a very last resort a citation can be written at the discretion of the deputy.”

On Friday morning, Cass County Judge Becky Wilbanks posted on Facebook that her county will be opting out of Abbott’s executive order requiring most Texans to wear masks in public spaces.

“From the beginning, this COVID-19 pandemic has thrown all of us into a world where there is no map or direction on how to navigate,” Wilbanks said in her post. “Basically, we have navigated by ‘the seat of our pants’ trying to do what is in the best interest of our residents for their health and well-being based on the information we are given.”

Wilbanks added that this has been hard for her as a public leader because of the lack of direct guidance from the Office of the Governor and the Texas Department of Emergency Management. She said both statewide have been “very ambiguous in their directives.”

The Cass County judge said in her post that she initially decided to not opt out of the Executive Order after she looked at the sudden rise in COVID-19 cases and consulted with health officials. She said she then took some time to reassess Cass County’s coronavirus numbers.

“After having additional time to reassess our status and after more consultations, I have decided to opt out of the governor’s order,” Wilbanks said in the post. “If our active case number reaches the 20 mark, we will then automatically be under the governor’s order.”

However, the choice to opt out of Abbott’s executive order does not free people to opt out of using common sense, the county judge said in her post.

“We must be self-responsible to do what is good and what is right,” Wilbanks said. “Please continue to follow the guidelines set forth by the CDC.

Nacogdoches County Sheriff Jason Bridges posted a video on the sheriff’s office Facebook page on Saturday that said his deputies will not be enforcing the governor’s executive order or the proclamation.

“I certainly respect our governor, and I know what he’s trying to do,” Bridges said in the video. “I also know he has a hard job.”

Bridges said when he was elected sheriff, he took an oath of office that said he would defend the U.S. Constitution. He added that Abbott’s most recent directives are “borderline infringing on people’s rights.”

Bridges said his deputies have no business going on to a person’s property to disperse a group of 10 or more people if no other laws are being broken.

“We don’t have the right to do that,” Bridges said.

Bridges also said that the proclamation only applies to groups of 10 or more people that are outside.

However, if there’s a 911 call at 1 a.m. about a large gathering with loud music or some other violation of the law, NCSO deputies will respond as they always have in those types of situations, Bridges said.

Bridges said that he talked to other sheriffs about the issue and that he talked to Nacogdoches County Judge Greg Sowell as well. He added that he and Sowell agree about Abbott’s executive order and proclamation.

“We believe that our citizens are going to use common sense and do what is right,” Bridges said.

If there is a large gathering of people in a public space in Nacogdoches County, NCSO deputies will show up to tell people to disperse, Bridges said.

The Nacogdoches County sheriff also said his office will not be keeping any kind of database on people who violate the executive order or the proclamation.

“We don’t have the time or the energy to do that sort of thing,” Bridges said.

NCSO deputies will also not be out writing people tickets for not wearing face masks, the sheriff said.

“I will stress this, though,” Bridges said. “We all still need to do our parts to limit the spread of COVID-19.”

The Smith County Sheriff’s Office will also not be issuing citations to people who violate the executive order requiring most Texans to wear masks in public spaces, according to a post on the SCSO Facebook page.

The post by Sheriff Larry Smith stated that the Smith County Sheriff’s Office encourages everyone to practice safe social distancing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Most of you have heard by now the governor’s order to wear a mask while in public,” Smith said in the post. “While we encourage the public to take all precautions, we will encourage voluntary compliance regarding wearing a mask and will not be issuing citations for failure to comply.”

The Facebook post went on to say that if a business refuses to serve someone who isn’t wearing a mask, they have the right to tell the individual to leave.

“We hope this answers some of the many questions we have been answering since this order went into effect,” Smith said.

The Upshur County Sheriff’s Office will not be taking any actions to enforce Executive Order 29, which requires most Texans to wear face masks in public spaces, according to a press release. The press release also explained why Sheriff Larry Webb made his decision.

“The executive order includes specific language prohibiting law enforcement use of detention, arrest, or confinement to enforce the order,” the press release stated. “This language strips police of the fundamental tools necessary to enforce compliance with the law.”

According to the press release, the language of the executive order would subject the Upshur County Sheriff’s Office to liability for even speaking to a person about the order because that could be construed as detention.

“Furthermore, holding someone for the purpose of issuing a citation related to a fine, would be, under current law, a legal detention,” the press release stated.

The press release went on to say that the sheriff’s office must consider the intent of the Texas Constitution in regard to “how the laws of the land are passed and enforced in this state.”

“Traditionally, law enforcement only enforces laws and statutes that are the product of the legislative process or the product of regulatory authorities authorized by the legislature,” the press release stated. “The further removed we become from this, the more liability and responsibility we incur as an agency. "

The Upshur County Sheriff’s Office will not be requiring its deputies to wear face masks for two reasons, the press release stated.

One, the wearing of objects near the face and neck could provide a suspect with ways to hurt a law enforcement officer, and the sheriff said his office will not put deputies at an unnecessary disadvantage during physical confrontations. The press release stated that UCSO deputies aren’t required to wear ties for the same reason.

The second reason listed stated, “In light of recent allegations in the nation of misconduct on the part of police, the sheriff will not restrict the deputy’s ability to clearly communicate intentions when in contact with citizens. "

However, the press release also stated that deputies will not be prohibited from wearing face masks if they choose to do so.

“The Sheriff’s Office does not make this statement as any disrespect to Governor Abbott, and we encourage all citizens to take reasonable precautions in their own life to mitigate possible exposure to the coronavirus,” the press release stated.

Gladewater police posted the following statement on their Facebook page:

Gladewater Police Department would like to address questions on the enforcement of the Governor's executive order for wearing a mask.

If a business refuses you service for not wearing a mask they have the right to do so.

If enforcement becomes necessary we will prefer to educate and request voluntary compliance. If there is an individual that refuses to voluntarily comply, verbal warnings and or written warnings will follow. As a very last resort a citation can be written at the discretion of our officers.

We are all in this together and we can safely get through it if we work together.

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