Houstonians have been encouraged to wear facial coverings in public for nearly three weeks.
Starting next week, they will be required to do so.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced Wednesday that she will issue an executive order requiring all citizens 10 years and older to wear masks or other facial coverings while in public for a period of 30 days, starting Monday. She said it is a necessary measure to continue slowing the spread of COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
“We have to use every tool in the toolbox,” Hidalgo said. “If we get complacent, people die and the economy takes longer to recover. Those are the stakes.”
The Houston Police Officers’ Union criticized Hidalgo and her impending order in a Wednesday statement, calling it draconian and “possibly” unconstitutional. The union said it had contacted the Texas Attorney General to seek an opinion about the legality of imposing a criminal penalty for not wearing a mask in public.
Ken Paxton, the state’s attorney general, subsequently issued a statement Wednesday that affirmed his support for Houston and Harris County law enforcement officers without addressing the legality of Hidalgo’s order.
“While health and safety guidelines are important to slow the spread of COVID-19, officers should use discretion as they carry out the functions of their sworn duty and focus on dangerous criminals who pose a serious risk to their community,” Paxton said.
Hidalgo said she consulted attorneys before making the announcement and is confident the order, which carries a $1,000 fine for those who do not comply, will be upheld. Similar mask-wearing orders already are in place in other Texas cities.
Hidalgo also said the measure aims to protect first responders as well as the general public, since there is evidence that COVID-19 can be widely spread by people who are asymptomatic. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who joined Hidalgo at her afternoon news conference, pointed out that fines and jail time are associated with violating the county’s stay-at-home, work safe order that has been in place for nearly a month, but those penalties have been largely moot as the majority of Houstonians have been in compliance.
“There’s all kinds of opinions in the community,” Hidalgo said in response to the criticism. “Some folks that will tell you seat belts are too draconian. We have those.”
Hidalgo said there are some exceptions to her order, notably for people who cannot wear facial coverings for medical or mental-health reasons.
N95 and other surgical masks are not recommended for the public, which Hidalgo said could use materials such as T-shirts or bandanas to cover their noses and mouths.
Turner said the city will soon distribute 70,000 masks to vulnerable portions of the community.
Hidalgo said she’s issuing her order in light of plans to soon begin loosening community restrictions in order to bolster the sagging economy both locally and beyond. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott previously said all retail businesses in the state can begin operating with to-go services on Friday.
The number of new COVID-19 cases and related deaths in Houston and Harris County have begun levelling off, Hidalgo and Turner said, although the region has not yet reached it peak. As of Wednesday, COVID-19 had infected at least 5,200 people in the city and county while contributing to 80 deaths.
“As we move forward, folks who want to get back to work and do all the other thing we want to do, we have to remember the virus is not gone,” said Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department. “It is still here. If we give it an opportunity, it will take it.”