FORT WORTH, Texas (CN) — Texas’ governor announced restrictions on elective surgeries Thursday and county officials in Fort Worth ordered face masks in local businesses, as the state grapples with a spike in Covid-19 cases after months of battling the pandemic.
Republican Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order that suspends elective surgery procedures in Dallas County, Bexar County in San Antonio, Harris County in Houston and Travis County in Austin.
The order states hospital bed capacity “can be overly diminished by surgeries and procedures that are not medically necessary to correct a serious medical condition or to preserve the life” of patients.
Texas – along with Arizona, California, Mississippi, Nevada and Oklahoma – have notched higher single-day records of confirmed cases this week. Abbott has faced heavy criticism of pushing ahead with reopening the state since May 1, two months after stay-at-home orders were first issued by local officials to mitigate the disease’s spread. The hashtag #AbbottResign briefly trended Wednesday on Twitter as thousands of social media users decried the mounting hospitalizations and deaths in the state.
Texas has recorded 125,921 cases and 2,249 deaths as of Wednesday night, according to the Department of State Health Services.
Abbott also ordered Thursday a pause in the state’s reopening phases, days after admitting a second closure of businesses would be a “last resort” if the spike in Covid-19 cases does not subside.
“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” he said in a statement. “This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business.”
Abbott has steadfastly refused to allow county and city officials to order people to wear face masks when in public, instead choosing to ask them to think of their fellow Texans in urging them to wear masks.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff was the first local official to get around Abbott’s refusal by ordering businesses on June 17 to require employees and customers to wear face masks or face a $1,000 fine. Dallas County commissioners followed suit within days, voting 3-2 to fine businesses $500 if they refused to comply with a similar order.
County judges in Texas are elected chief executives of the county — they have no judicial duties. They head each county’s five-member commissioners’ court.
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley in Fort Worth followed Wolff’s lead Thursday morning, ordering businesses to require face masks until Aug. 3 or face a $1,000 fine. The order applies to outdoor gatherings of over 100 people as well. Flanked by county health officials and the mayors of Fort Worth, Arlington and Burleson, a masked Whitley told reporters that “this is not a political issue, it is an issue of respecting your neighbors.”
He said confirmed cases in the county have surged over 52% the past two weeks, while hospitalizations are up over 67% and deaths are up 14%.
“If you can save one life by wearing a mask, isn’t that worth it?” he asked. “Isn’t it worth a little inconvenience?”
Whitley expressed frustration at having to “beg folks to wear masks” since March.
“You have heard the respected medical individuals who deal with the science who say ‘wear the mask,’” he told said. “We have got to find some way to curb the growth of this virus.”
The chief executive said it is not the county’s goal to throw people in jail or write tickets and he wants to “get as many people as possible” to wear masks.
“We have laws against smoking in public places, that law was for the other folks around that for the individual,” Whitley said. “If someone really wants to get nasty about it and get in the face of an employer or police, this gives them a tool to react.”
Whitley acknowledged Tarrant County was not included in Abbott’s order suspending elective surgeries. He said there are approximately 1,800 hospital beds available in the county and the face mask order is “one step on the path” of not having more restrictions on hospitals. He said the county will announce over 400 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 later Thursday, down from over 500 on Wednesday.
Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams said the city’s annual Independence Day fireworks display will be moved from downtown Arlington to AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park due to the parking lots having space for “plenty of social distancing.” The stadiums are the home of the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers, respectively. Thousands of Arlington residents usually cram shoulder to shoulder downtown for the all-day festivities.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price added “we need your help, we need you to follow these orders and mask up.” She said the cities and Tarrant County tried to go with voluntary compliance “but folks just were not seeing it.” Price has been self-quarantined at least twice since the outbreak due to exposure to people who tested positive for Covid-19.
Abbott and Whitley’s orders come one day after Judge Wolff was recorded on video being slapped on the hand by a Lowe’s hardware store customer in San Antonio who was angry about being required to wear a mask inside. Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced the man faces a felony charge of assault on a public servant and that his deputies know his identity.