Maybe it’s because most of us had gotten a little stir crazy. Perhaps we were so tired of being stuck at home, and unable to go to a ballgame or a bar or a neighborhood barbecue, that we weren’t thinking clearly.
It could be that we just needed to unleash our pent-up anger and anxiety over COVID-19, the disease that has damaged our families, our economy and our emotional wellbeing.
Whatever the reason, many went ballistic when Lina Hidalgo said we had to wear masks in public and could face a $1,000 fine for not doing so. The Harris County Judge faced immediate criticism from citizens and her counterparts in Galveston and Montgomery counties, and some state officials scoffed as well. Hidalgo even got sued by a Houston-area doctor.
Nevermind that when Hidalgo announced her executive order on April 22, it had been nearly three weeks since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that all Americans wear face coverings in public to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Nevermind that each of Hidalgo’s previous orders, such as the ones that made us stay home and made businesses either close or change their way of operating, also came with fines and even jail time for violations.
Where was the outrage about those orders and the penalties for not obeying them? There was comparatively little, and Hidalgo said Monday she was not aware of a single citation having been issued or any fines having been levied.
That’s because, as she also said Monday, the point of making the orders enforceable was not to go out looking for people to punish. The point was to drive home the fact these measures are necessary to protect individuals and the health of the community as a whole.
According to public health officials, COVID-19 is commonly spread by asymptomatic carriers, and wearing masks can prevent infection.
“This is not a matter of convenience,” Hidalgo said. “This is a matter of life or death for people.”
So we might have lost our collective mind over this one, which is understandable considering the increasingly shaky state of our society. Still, Hidalgo’s latest order and the reasoning behind it should not have been so difficult to comprehend.
We’re in the midst of a pandemic that as of Wednesday morning, had infected nearly 3 million people across the globe and killed more than 200,000, according to the World Health Organization. In Houston and Harris County, a highly populated area where testing has been limited, local officials had reported nearly 6,000 cases and more than 100 deaths.
Let’s also keep in mind that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has begun to reopen the state, allowing his stay-at-home order to lapse on Thursday and permitting businesses such as restaurants, movie theaters and retail shops to open with limited occupancies on Friday. While it might seem that Hidalgo’s mask-wearing order contradicts the spirit of the governor’s order – which carries a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 180 days in jail for violations – it really just provides a safety net and a reminder that our fight against this virus is far from over.
And while Abbott undermined Hidalgo by ordering that no jurisdiction in Texas could impose penalties on people who fail to cover their faces, he also said, “We strongly recommend everyone wear a mask.” It’s a requirement, even, for anyone who visits a state park.
So props to Hidalgo for standing her ground on this issue, even though she was forced to take the potential fine out of her order. All Harris County residents age 10 or older are still required to wear masks when in public through May 27 – with some limited exceptions – and common household items such as T-shirts, bandanas, scarves and handkerchiefs can be used as face coverings.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner also deserves credit for calming the commotion that followed Hidalgo’s announcement last week. He and local law enforcement leaders eased concerns about the $1,000 fine, which many citizens cannot afford to pay at a time when too many are unemployed, by saying police officers would distribute masks to those without them instead of handing out citations.
So the fine was no longer an issue even before the governor made sure of it.
That’s all well and good. What’s not OK is putting others at risk just because covering your face makes you feel funny or uncomfortable or like your rights have been violated.
It’s really not that hard and not that sour of an experience. And the more we protect ourselves and others now, the quicker we can return to a time when doing so is no longer necessary.
So please, wear a mask when you venture out and try to hide your disdain for doing so.