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Texas Gov. Abbott mandates face masks in most public spaces to curb state’s COVID spread

Gov. Greg Abbott, left, and Dennis Bonnen, right. (Jay Janner/Austin-American Stateman/TNS)

After facing growing calls to mandate face masks statewide, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Thursday requiring most Texans wear face coverings in public spaces to help limit the spread of novel coronavirus.

Starting at 12:01 p.m. Friday, Texans in counties with 20 or more confirmed COVID-19 cases must wear a face mask in buildings and businesses open to the public and in outdoor public space where maintaining six feet of distance from another person isn’t feasible. The mask must cover both their nose and mouth.

Also starting Friday afternoon, Abbott banned most outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people, unless approved by local officials. Abbott had previously limited outdoor gatherings to 100 people.

Thursday’s announcement comes as Texas braces itself for anticipated gatherings over the Fourth of July weekend and works to curb all-time highs of new cases and hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 7,915 new COVID-19 cases Thursday — a drop of 161 from Wednesday’s single-day high of 8,076 new cases. Meanwhile, hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients rose to an all-time high for the fourth consecutive day with 7,382 patients.

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“Wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said in a statement. “We have the ability to keep businesses open and move our economy forward so that Texans can continue to earn a paycheck, but it requires each of us to do our part to protect one another — and that means wearing a face covering in public spaces.”

The executive order provides limited exceptions. Texans under 10 years old or people with a medical condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a face covering are exempt.

In addition, people are also not required to wear a face mask while seated at a restaurant or eating and drinking, while exercising outside if they can maintain a safe distance from others, while driving alone or with members of their household, while swimming in a pool or lake, while giving a speech or if a person must temporarily remove their face mask, like for security purposes while visiting a bank or while receiving personal care services.

Face masks are not required but strongly encouraged for people during religious services, when voting and in counties with few COVID-19 cases that opt out and have filed the necessary forms with the Texas Division of Emergency Management. A list of counties exempt from the order will be posted at tdem.texas.gov/ga29/.

The order also explicitly notes that people must wear masks at protests or demonstrations that will have more than 10 people present and where people can’t remain six feet apart. Texas recently saw hundreds gather for near-daily protests decrying police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

In Thursday’s order, Abbott also restored local officials’ abilities to enforce residents wear a face mask, by allowing them to fine people up to $250 for each violation after a person’s first warning.

While local law enforcement cannot detain, arrest or jail a person for violating the order, officials may remove violators from businesses.

“I think he puts the responsibility on the individual, and that’s where it belongs,” Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said, noting that Abbott’s edict was stricter than what he could mandate locally.

Whitley said next week the county would decide how to administer requests for gatherings larger than 10. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price’s office said the city did not need to take immediate action and would also reassess any local changes next week.

In a video accompanying Thursday’s announcement, Abbott stressed that his new executive order was not intended to be punitive and was not a stay-at-home order. Last week, Abbott struck a newly urgent tone, but stressed that “closing down Texas again will always be the last option.”

“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 we care about, we need all Texans to join this effort,” Abbott said during the video.

In recent weeks Abbott has emphasized the need for Texans to recommit to best practices, like staying home as much as possible and wearing a face mask. But he had resisted calls from local officials in Texas’ largest metro areas and Democratic state lawmakers who have urged for a statewide mask mandate to help combat record cases.

Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement Thursday that Abbott’s order was “far too little, far too late.”

“It took Texas Democrats demanding that he issue this common-sense policy and record breaking cases and hospitalizations to get Governor Abbott to finally act. This is unacceptable,” Rahman said. “Governor Abbott continues to lead from behind rather than implementing preventive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”

Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat from Grand Prairie and chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said Thursday’s mandate was “long-overdue,” but he urged Texans to follow it.

“This measure will help contain the rapidly increasing spread of coronavirus in our state, and will, most importantly, save lives. Everyone should comply with this order,” Turner said in a statement Thursday.

Thursday’s mandate also stoked opposition from some conservative lawmakers, like outgoing Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Republican from Bedford, who wrote on Twitter that Abbott had failed to mention it on a call with Republican state lawmakers earlier that afternoon.

“We need a special session now so legislators can pass laws, not Abbott,” Rep. Tony Tinderholt, a Republican from Arlington, wrote on Twitter.

Public health experts have said that it may be unnecessary to enact a new stay-at-home order if mask usage becomes widespread. And a recent study worked on by researchers from Texas A&M University and UT Austin found that wearing a face mask is one of the most effective ways to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

When pressed in television interviews if he would consider implementing a statewide mandate, Abbott had often noted that a majority of Texans are already required to wear one in businesses under recent local orders.

Whether local officials could enforce residents wear a mask recently became a point of contention, with the mayors of Texas’ largest cities — including Fort Worth and Arlington — requesting Abbott restore local officials’ enforcement abilities, which he had stripped in late April.

Abbott resisted their calls, but later approved of Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s order requiring businesses mandate masks for employees and customers or face fines. At the time, Abbott said that had always been allowed and that Wolff had “finally figured that out.”

Cities and counties across Texas quickly followed suit. After initially saying they wouldn’t mandate face masks, Tarrant County leaders reversed course and joined Texas’ largest metro areas in requiring masks be worn by employees and customers in businesses.

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© 2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram