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Mayors to Texas Governor: Let Us Require Masks

Mayors to Texas Governor: Let Us Require Masks
Stateline Jun17
Manicurist Rhonda Simpson, left, polishes nails for her customer at the reopened Salon A la Mode in Dallas in April. The salon installed barriers to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Mayors in Dallas and other cities want the Texas governor to restore their authority to require people to wear face masks.
LM Otero/The Associated Press

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

A bipartisan group of Texas mayors wants the governor to restore the authority to require people wear face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19.

"We should trust local officials to make informed choices about health policy," the nine mayors wrote this week in a letter to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. "And if mayors are given the opportunity to require face coverings, we believe our cities will be ready to help reduce the spread of this disease."

The letter comes as Texas continues to loosen restrictions on businesses while also logging record-setting numbers of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Texas reported 2,622 new coronavirus cases and 2,518 total hospitalized on Tuesday. It also reported an additional 1,476 cases that had been diagnosed earlier among inmates but were reported by local health departments recently, bringing Tuesday's total reported cases to 4,098.

At a news conference this week, Abbott said that wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and maintaining safe distancing practices are strategies that work. But when asked about Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins’ plea to let local governments require people to wear masks, and Jenkins’ comment that masks are scientifically proven as the best tool to contain the spread, he said, "Putting people in jail, however, is the wrong approach."

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Although under the governor’s rules, local officials can’t impose fines for not wearing face masks, they can do so for failing to follow other strategies, such as gatherings and locations that fall astray of state protocols, Abbott said.

"Even though Judge Jenkins or any other local official has had the authority to impose those fines, they haven't lifted a finger to do so," Abbott said.

On Wednesday, a Bexar County judge issued an order for businesses to require employees and customers to wear face masks when six feet of social distancing isn't possible. Businesses that fail to comply with the order by Monday risk a fine of up to $1,000 for each violation. The order is considered to be consistent with the governor’s directive because it doesn’t fine individuals.

The governor’s press office did not immediately return a request for comment on the mayors’ letter.

In April, Abbott signed an executive order that prohibits jurisdictions from imposing "a civil or criminal penalty" if people don’t wear face coverings. In May, he amended the order to eliminate confinement as a punishment. The move came after a Dallas salon owner was jailed for keeping her business open despite closure orders.

Abbott this week encouraged residents to not be alarmed.

"Jobs can be maintained without jeopardizing the health of a community if everyone follows the safe strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19," Abbott said.

Abbott attributed the rise in recent cases to more testing, especially in nursing homes, jails and prisons. Some tests of such spaces have been aggregated and returned on a single day, which is reflected in a recent spike in some counties, Abbott said.

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Abbott also pointed to Lubbock, Bexar and Cameron counties, where a majority of people testing positive are under the age of 30. Those people are typically contracting the virus in bar-type settings, Abbott said.

There is "abundant hospital capacity" to treat COVID-19 patients who require hospitalization, Abbott said. For example, 64 tested positive in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who were added to hospital beds, while 308 hospital beds became available, Abbott said.

However, the mayors wrote that some areas are seeing more rapid increases in confirmed cases than in testing.

"While it's important to get our economy working again, we must also take precautions to avoid a massive influx of new cases overwhelming our hospitals," they wrote.

The mayors who signed the letter include Democrats Sylvester Turner (Houston), Steve Adler (Austin) and Eric Johnson (Dallas); Republicans Betsy Price (Fort Worth), Dee Margo (El Paso), Jeff Williams (Arlington) and Harry LaRosiliere (Plano); and Independent Ron Nirenberg (San Antonio). Another signer, Ron Jensen (Grand Prairie), is officially nonpartisan.

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Local and state public health officials wield extraordinary powers in emergency situations such as the current coronavirus outbreak. They can close schools and private businesses. They can restrict or shut down mass transit systems. They can cancel concerts, sporting events and political rallies. They can call up the National Guard. They can suspend medical licensing laws and protect doctors from liability claims. And they can quarantine or isolate people who might infect others.

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