Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo officially announced her order requiring face coverings on most county residents who leave the house, in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Under the executive order, people ages 10 and older must cover noses and mouths with a mask, bandanna, scarf or other face covering if leaving the house, beginning Monday and lasting 30 days. Hidalgo also recommended children under 10 wear a mask, if possible.
The order also requires employers categorized as essential businesses under Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order to provide face coverings and training to any worker required to come into contact with colleagues or the public.
Exceptions include eating, drinking, exercising, or being alone in a separate place indoors. The order also exempts wearing a mask when it poses a greater risk to security, mental or physical health. The county judge asked people not to use medical or N-95 masks if they could be avoided, in order to make them available to first responders. There would also be instructions to make a face covering at home on ReadyHarris.org.
“We have to use every tool in the toolbox,” Hidalgo said at a press conference Wednesday. “Because if we get complacent, people die, the economy takes longer to recover, and those are the stakes.”
Violations will be punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.
The Houston Police Officers’ Union and the Harris County Deputies’ Organization criticized the order Wednesday, with the Houston police union calling it “idiotic” and “draconian.” HPOU said it contacted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to seek an opinion on the order’s legality.
Both unions said they lacked resources to properly enforce such an order.
In a press release, Paxton did not comment on the order’s legality, but said officers should use “discretion.”
But Hidalgo too said Wednesday that law enforcement could use discretion in enforcement. She added that she understood not everyone would like the decision, but she said steps like these were necessary.
“There are some people that will tell you seat belts are draconian,” Hidalgo said.
Within minutes of the official announcement, Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick condemned Hidalgo’s decision.
“(Hidalgo’s) abuse of the use of executive orders is the ultimate government overreach,” read a statement from Patrick. “These kind of confused government policies fuel public anger – and rightfully so.”
Patrick has been particularly adamant in opening the economy. Last month, he said he would rather die from COVID-19 than see the economy destroyed. This week he defended those comments, saying “there are more important things than living. And that’s saving this country for my children and my grandchildren and saving this country for all of us.”
Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, along with local health officials, stressed that masks and face coverings were not a substitute for social distancing, which all said was helping to stop the spread of the virus in the region. Turner said new cases were leveling off, and that there are more discharges than people being treated for the virus. There were also no new deaths related to the virus reported Wednesday.
Turner added there have been no deaths related to the coronavirus in Houston. But he said it was not time to be complacent.
“I don’t want to get too comfortable in the number,” Turner said. “The number I do want to emphasize, though, is that for the third day straight in a row we’re not adding to the death count.”