All Texans in counties with 20 or more cases of COVID-19 must wear masks in public places, Gov. Greg Abbott said in an executive order handed down Thursday.
“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,” said Abbott, moving away from his often-stated opposition to a statewide mandate.
“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 order came amid a prolonged spike in both the number of people in Texas testing positive for the highly contagious virus and in the number of hospitalizations.
His order also allows mayors and county judges to impose restrictions on some outdoor gatherings of over 10 people and makes it mandatory that, with certain exceptions, people cannot be in groups larger than 10 and must maintain six feet of social distancing from others.
There are penalties for not following Abbott’s order.
“Following a verbal or written warning for a first-time violator of this face covering requirement, a person’s second violation shall be punishable by a fine not to exceed $250. Each subsequent violation shall be punishable by a fine not to exceed $250 per violation,” it reads.
The order, which Abbott resisted issuing as recently as June 22, comes just ahead of the Fourth of July weekend and after a steep and steady spike in case that started soon after Memorial Day.
According to the state’s official coronavirus website, Texas has seen nearly 176,000 positive cases since the pandemic struck early this year. Of those, about 90,000 people have recovered and more than 2,500 have died.
The state estimates that nearly 83,000 people have the disease and more than 7,300 of them are hospitalized.
Several business and medical groups applauded the mask order, saying it helps reduce what some have called confusing or conflicting policies about how best to slow the virus’ spread.
“There is no question about it – face masks reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Dr. Diana L. Fite, a Houston physician and president of the Texas Medical Association. “They help protect the people wearing masks, and they help protect the people around them.”
Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, said her struggling industry welcomes the force of law that Abbott’s order brings as restaurants seek to remain in business while protecting their customers and workers.
“Texas restaurants continue to prioritize health and safety, but we cannot do it alone,” Knight said. “Today’s orders better protect our frontline workers and ensure everyone understands their role in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Added Annie Spilman, the Texas director of the National Federation of Business:
“Over the past several weeks, many local governments throughout the state have passed ordinances requiring people to wear masks in public. By issuing an executive order that applies statewide, Governor Abbott will eliminate the confusion caused by this patchwork of local rules, help reduce the spread of the deadly coronavirus and help Texans get back to work sooner.”
The issue of mask-wearing has been as polarizing in Texas as it has been in several other states. Texas Democrats said the Republican governor was too slow to hand down the mandate given the rising caseload.
“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,” said Abhi Rahman, spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party. “This is unacceptable. Governor Abbott continues to lead from behind rather than implementing preventive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”
Some Republicans have called a mask mandate an infringement on civil liberties, and the state GOP has said as recently as early this week that face coverings would not be required at its planned convention this month. Abbott’s order likely tops the party’s plans. And party officials might consider moving the convention online, as Texas Democrats did earlier.
Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican who is not seeking re-election, praised Abbott’s move and rejected notions that he was too slow in acting.
“Leaders lead while others criticize,” Bonnen said. “I applaud his face covering requirement and stand firmly with him as he makes these tough decisions.”
State Rep. Chris Turner, who leads the House Democratic Caucus, called the order “long-overdue.”
“Local officials and House Democrats, along with medical professionals, have been calling for this action for weeks now,” Turner said. “Texas is in crisis and it is past time for decisive action to be taken.”
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a conservative from North Texas who is not seeking re-election, likened the order to tyranny.
“Liberty is under direct attack & cannot be ignored by Texans anymore,” Stickland said in a tweet. “Action to replace this man must begin immediately.”
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, an Austin-area Republican, supports mask wearing in public. In a tweet Thursday, he noted that Texans “pride ourselves on being fearless and independent.” But he added, “We must be mindful to care for our fellow Texans, old and young. So be sure to put on a face covering before you head out.”
He ended the tweet by putting on a mask.
Exceptions to Gov. Abbott’s new statewide mask order:
- Children under 10
- People who have a medical condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a mask
- While eating, drinking or sitting at a restaurant to eat or drink
- While exercising outdoors or engaging in physical activity while maintaining social distance guidelines
- While driving alone or riding in a vehicle with members of the same household
- While swimming in a pool, lake or other similar body of water
- While in church.
Penalties for disobeying mask order:
- First time violation: Verbal or written warning
- Second and subsequent violations: A fine not to exceed $250 per violation.