Gov. Greg Abbott says business owners in the Longview and Tyler area should be “demanding” that local officials enforce his mask order “to make sure they will be able to stay open.”
Abbott also said Friday during an interview with News-Journal news partner CBS19 that’s he’s “disappointed” that local law enforcement has refused to issue citations to residents not wearing masks.
“It’s disappointing and again, I can understand the mindset being a kid who grew up in Longview myself, that this may not be the top priority,” he said during the interview. “A murderer or a rapist or a robber is far more serious to concentrate on. However, I know this also, and that is if we do not all join together and unite in this one cause for a short period of time, of adopting a mask, what it will lead to the necessity of having to close Texas back down.
“The only way those businesses are going to stay open is to make sure people wear masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus.”
The order issued by the governor July 2 says Texans must wear a face covering over their nose and mouth in public places with some exceptions. According to the order, after a written or verbal warning for a first-time violator, a person could have to pay a fine not to exceed $250 for their second violation. Further violations would be punished by a fine not to exceed $250 each time.
However, county and city officials in the Longview area have said they can’t or won’t enforce the mandate, with Longview Mayor Andy Mack saying enforcement is “impossible.”
“We need our police department focused on criminal activity rather than mask compliance,” he said.
Sheriffs in Upshur, Rusk and Smith counties also said the day after the order was issued that they would not be issuing fines for residents who do not comply.
East Texas isn’t the only part of the state where the governor’s order faces resistance.
In Montgomery County, which has a population of over 600,000 and has reported more than 2,700 coronavirus cases so far, the sheriff’s office said July 3 that it would not take action on the mask rule.
“This order includes specific language prohibiting law enforcement from detaining, arresting, or confining to jail as a means to enforce the order,” the agency wrote in a statement. “This language strips law enforcement of the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law.”
The statement added that the department would only respond to calls about violations of the order if they are from an “authorized supervisor representative of the business” that is reporting a person who refuses to leave the property.
In a statement the next day, Gillespie County Sheriff Buddy Mills made a similar declaration. He also said his deputies would not be required to wear face masks on duty because it could put them at a disadvantage during a physical confrontation. Citing recent protests over police brutality, he said he wanted the deputies to be able to clearly communicate their intentions when interacting with residents.
“The sheriff’s office does not make this statement as any disrespect to Governor Abbott and we encourage all citizens to take reasonable precautions in their own life to mitigate possible exposure to the corona virus,” Mills wrote.
Law enforcement officials in Kerr County and Wood County and the cities of Hawkins and Winnsboro have also said they won’t enforce the mask rule.
However, others have fallen in line. On June 25, the city of Colleyville, a suburb northeast of Fort Worth, issued a statement saying it would not adopt or enforce Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley’s mandate requiring businesses to call for their employees and customers to wear face masks. Jerry Ducay, Colleyville’s city manager, said that while Colleyville Mayor Richard Newton encouraged people to wear masks, he did not believe it was “appropriate for our police officers to be put in a position of being asked to enforce an unenforceable act.”
However, the city changed its stance after Abbott’s order.
“I believe the vast majority of (people) were already wearing masks, and certainly were doing so in areas that they could not social distance,” Ducay said. “And I believe that effort is continuing throughout, and our business owners and our citizens recognize that wearing masks provides a benefit in our ongoing fight with COVID.”
Abbott also gave counties the opportunity to opt out if they have a low number of active coronavirus cases. A week later, 78 counties have taken him up on that offer.
“I think it’s an insult to Texans to be required to do something they should have discretion for,” said Hugh Reed, the top administrator for rural Armstrong County, near Amarillo, which opted out.
In order to opt out of the requirement, the counties need to have 20 or fewer active COVID-19 cases. Given the spread of the virus in recent weeks, only counties that are sparsely populated and rural tend to qualify. Most are in conservative areas of the state.
Rex Fields, the top elected official in Eastland County, said Abbott’s option for counties with low coronavirus case counts “gives people some personal freedom.”