With Abbott’s OK, Austin Requires Masks at Businesses
The Statesman - Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued an order Wednesday, mandating that all businesses immediately come up with a plan to require facial coverings.
The order came after Gov. Greg Abbott gave his approval to a new Bexar County rule that requires businesses to mandate masks for workers and customers. As the state reported another day of record-setting COVID-19 infections, Abbott was asked if the Bexar County order went too far. No, he told a Waco TV station, indicating that it was consistent with his emergency orders during the pandemic.
With that clarification in place, Adler moved ahead with similar guidelines in Austin, which requires businesses to “develop and implement a health and safety policy or plan related to COVID-19.” The plan must require, at minimum, that all employees and visitors wear face coverings.
Adler’s order offers several exceptions for facial coverings, including when a person is alone “in a separate single space, whether indoors or outdoors.” It also lays out exceptions for those with members from their same household and when a person is eating or drinking in a restaurant or bar.
“During this time, we will transition to a more direct order on masks, working with our business community so our whole city moves forward together and so that everyone can get prepared,” Adler said in a statement.
A county spokesman said Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe is working with attorneys to research Bexar County’s order and is considering issuing something similar “very soon.”
Under the order issued Wednesday by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, businesses must require employees and customers wear face coverings starting Monday.
Bexar County businesses could face a $1,000 fine for failure to develop and implement the policy, but — keeping in line with Abbott’s previous orders — no penalties can be enforced on individuals who fail to wear a face covering.
Amid uncertainty about the scope of Abbott’s orders and what they allow, the governor said it seemed Wolff had read his reopening plan and “finally figured that out.”
“There has been a plan in place all along that all that was needed was for local officials to actually read the plan that was issued by the state of Texas,” Abbott said in an interview Wednesday with KWTX-TV in Waco.
Health officials largely agree that wearing a face covering, in addition to social distancing, can help limit the spread of the coronavirus.
But the National Federation of Independent Business, a lobbying group for small companies, complained that Bexar County’s order will hurt businesses that are already struggling during the pandemic.
“The shutdown had a devastating impact on the Texas economy,” the federation’s state director, Annie Spilman, said in a statement. “Orders like Judge Wolff’s put owners in the difficult position of policing their customers while trying to reopen and rebuild their businesses.”
Abbott’s approval of the local mask rule came one day after nine Texas mayors, including Adler, asked the governor to allow local governments to draft and enforce their own rules on facial coverings.
Abbott’s statewide executive orders, which supersede local orders, do not require face coverings for Texans. Abbott also has specified that local officials cannot jail Texans for violating his orders.
Democrats have argued that the lack of enforcement makes it difficult for local governments to require social distancing and other policies to slow the coronavirus spread.
In a letter to Abbott, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, urged the governor to give local officials the authority to set their own rules and regulations on public health.
“Unshackle local leaders to lead since you will not,” Doggett wrote Wednesday.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have continued to rise across the state and in Austin.
State health officials reported a record 2,793 COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals on Wednesday, the sixthday in a row the state had hit a high in hospitalizations.
The Texas Department of State Health Services also reported 3,129 new COVID-19 cases, a record high. Abbott had said the state expects see a surge in new cases because of additional reporting out of prisons, but it’s not clear how many of Wednesday’s cases could be attributed to prison outbreaks.