DALLAS (CN) — Dallas County commissioners ordered businesses Friday to require customers and employees to wear masks during the Covid-19 pandemic or face a $500 fine, getting around Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s refusal to order people to wear face coverings.
County Judge Clay Jenkins and Commissioners Theresa Daniel and Elba Garcia voted for the order in a 3-2 vote, while Commissioners J.J. Koch and John Wiley Price opposed. Koch is the lone Republican.
An exasperated Price asked during debate why the county is being dragged into ordering face mask compliance when businesses can choose to enact their own policies.
“If they don’t want me to come into their store with no shirt, no shoes, no service, they can do that,” he said. “Why do they need us?”
Garcia agreed with Price, successfully including amendments to the order that lower the fine from a proposed $1,000 to $500. She also successfully removed language requiring enforcement by the county sheriff or fire marshal.
“All along, I said I support wearing masks 100%,” Garcia said. “But not with law enforcement, with any kind of enforcement other than a citation, that is it. If it has any kind of sheriff or fire marshal … I will not be able to support it.”
As Jenkins read the final version of the order into the record, Price stood up and continued to loudly argue his opposition with fellow commissioners while off the microphone.
Local jurisdictions in Texas began considering ordering businesses to require face masks after Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff in San Antonio enacted the first such order in the state Wednesday. Businesses there will face a $1,000 fine if they fail to require face masks in areas where 6-foot social distancing is not possible. Cities and counties have struggled to find a way around Governor Abbott’s refusal to order individuals to wear face masks when in public.
Abbott surprisingly commended Wolff’s order, saying Wednesday the judge “finally figured out” how to require face masks without ordering people to do so.
“We want to make sure that individual liberty is not infringed upon by government and hence government cannot require individuals to wear a mask,” Abbott told CBS affiliate KWTX in Waco. “However, pursuant to my plan, local governments can require stores and businesses to require masks. That’s what was authorized in my plan, that’s what the Bexar County judge has now realized. And so what Bexar County is doing and what every county is authorized to do, and that is to impose requirements on business operations.”
Abbott’s comments came one day after the mayors of Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Arlington, Plano and Grand Prairie asked the governor for the authority to “set rules and regulations on the use of face coverings in each” of their cities.
“A one-size fits all approach is not the best option,” the mayors’ letter states. “We should trust local officials to make informed choices about health policy. 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.”
Dallas County’s action comes three days after Abbott accused Jenkins of not “lifting a finger to use those other tools of enforcement” to get people to wear face masks.
“Putting people in jail is the wrong approach for this … and that is exactly what I believe the Dallas County judge wants to do and that is throw people in jail and that’s wrong,” Abott said.
In Texas, counties’ elected chief executives are called county judges — they are administrative positions with no judicial duties.
Jenkins quickly responded that Abbott “may have been offended by my honesty” when he told the governor’s staff that Texas’ spike in cases is due to accelerated openings and limits on “local ability to enforce recommendations” by Abbott and doctors.
“Let me be clear about masking. No one could be jailed for not wearing a mask under my or the city of Dallas’ orders,” Jenkins said in a statement Tuesday. “Rather we made requirements out of the governor’s recommendations only to have his [Attorney General] Ken Paxton write us a letter demanding we rescind our efforts and saying they didn’t want the governor’s recommendations enforced or checked on.”
Confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Texas have spiked higher as Abbott has pressed ahead with reopening businesses after stay-at-home orders were enacted in March to mitigate the spread of the disease. About 99,850 infections and 2,105 deaths have been reported as of Thursday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Bexar and Dallas counties’ orders come over a month after the city of Stillwater in Oklahoma enacted a similar order requiring businesses to require face masks. Stillwater Mayor Will Joyce hastily retracted the order after three hours due to reports of residents making verbal and physical threats at businesses and placing angry phone calls to city hall.
“To the people who resort to threats and intimidation when asked to take a simple step to protect your community: shame on you,” he tweeted. “Our freedom as Americans comes with responsibilities, too.”