Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo tried to make mask-wearing mandatory two months ago, but her executive order was undone by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Now, with the Houston region seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and Abbott allowing for a loophole in his statewide plan for reopening the economy, face covering requirements are back in play.
Hidalgo signed a new order Friday requiring all businesses in Harris County, including the City of Houston, to require their employees, customers and visitors age 10 and older to wear masks. The order takes effect Monday, June 22, and follows the lead of Bexar County, which made a similar order Wednesday with the reported blessing of Abbott.
Abbott’s statewide order says individual citizens cannot be required to wear masks — which was the focus of Hidalgo’s short-lived local order in April — even though the Texas Department of State Health Services recommends face coverings as a way of preventing the spread of COVID-19, the contagious disease caused by the new coronavirus. Forcing businesses to force their employees and customers to wear masks is a way around that provision.
“It is so crucial that all of us modify our behavior. That is the only thing that’s going to keep us from going into a crisis,” Hidalgo said during a Friday afternoon news conference. “… The spike in hospitalizations in our region is real, and it’s more dangerous than it’s ever been.”
Hidalgo said the region’s hospitals still have capacity for COVID-19 patients, but “just because there’s a bed for you right now doesn’t mean we want you there.” According to the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which tracks medical trends in the Houston area, there has been a steady uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions during June.
The Houston Health Department reported 972 new cases of COVID-19 among city residents on Friday, along with six new deaths, while Harris County reported 215 new cases among residents who live outside the city limits. The city and county have reported a total of 19,739 cases, with the disease having caused at least 311 deaths and 7,846 patients having recovered.
“I fully support the order,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
Hidalgo and Turner likened the order to many businesses’ longstanding “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policies, saying it merely adds masks to the equation.
The order also has the support of the Greater Houston Partnership, according to Bob Harvey, the president and CEO of the economic development nonprofit. Harvey said the pandemic has caused a net loss of about 276,000 jobs in the Houston area, with about 73,000 of those lost jobs in the hospitality industry.
Per Hidalgo’s order, restaurants must require their customers to enter with masks, but they are not required while eating or drinking. Masks also are not required when exercising or driving, and people do not have to wear them if doing so “poses a mental, physical, safety or security risk.”
“Reopening must be safe in order to be successful, and we cannot afford to go backward as an economy,” Harvey said. “We also can’t allow this virus to grow unchecked.”
Hidalgo cautioned that wearing masks is not a substitute for social distancing, avoiding large crowds and practicing good hygiene, such as frequently washing hands and avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands. Dr. David Persse and Dr. Umair Shah, the public health authorities for Houston and Harris County, respectively, said all those practices in concert help reduce the transmission of COVID-19.
Noting evidence of asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread of the disease, the health officials also have said the primary purpose of wearing masks is to protect those in proximity to the mask-wearer, along with providing some protection to the mask-wearer if others nearby are infected.
“I can’t underscore enough the importance and effectiveness of masks,” Persse said.
Added Shah: “When you are around other people, please, please, please wear your face coverings.”
Businesses that do not require masks on their premises may face a $1,000 fine for each violation, although Hidalgo said her order comes with a five-day grace period for enforcement. She also said the “priority is education,” meaning local officials and law enforcement agencies will seek compliance before imposing punishments.
Hidalgo also implored people to refrain from politicizing her order or pushing back against it, saying, “It’s time to get to work and not to make excuses.”
“Nobody wants to go and fine anybody,” Turner said. “But the reality is, in a healthcare crisis, there are certain requirements that must take place. People ought to understand that. It’s a requirement, and I think it’s important for people to follow it.”