TEXAS, USA — Mayors from nine Texas cities sent a letter to Governor Abbott on Tuesday, asking for permission to enforce mask orders as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations spike in the state.
The mayors of San Antonio, Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Arlington, Plano, and Grand Prairie signed the letter, arguing that mask wearing is one of the best ways to keep businesses open and keep people safe, allowing the economy to reopen without overwhelming local hospitals.
"We think you would agree that a healthy economy starts with healthy people," the letter said. "If you do not have plans to mandate face coverings statewide, we ask that you restore the ability for local authorities to enforce the wearing of face coverings in public venues where physical distancing cannot be practiced."
Governor Abbott gave an update earlier in the day as Texas reported 4,098 new cases, and 2,518 Texans are currently in the hospital. Both of those numbers are record highs.
He urged Texans to wear masks and practice social distancing, but he's made clear his opposition to fining or arresting people who violate these health guidelines.
Earlier in the week he responded to the Bexar County judge on the issue of mask orders, saying that he agreed on the importance of wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, but he didn't think government should be able to require it.
"He believes in government mandates, I believe in personal responsibility," he said. "Every interview that I've had on TV, I talk about the individual responsibility to wear a face guard to make sure that you don't either transmit COVID-19 or that you don't get it. It's up to every individual in the state to make sure that we slow the spread of COVID-19."
We asked the Governor's spokesman for an interview or a comment from the Governor on the letter he received from the nine Mayors. John Wittman first referred us to the comments Governor Abbott made during Tuesday's press conference. A reporter asked the Governor about Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins' letter to the Governor asking him to consider requiring face masks.
“Several things. I have made clear, everybody on this panel has made clear, but as you know I make clear on a daily basis around the entire state of Texas that wearing masks is very important and local officials send that same message," Governor Abbott said during a COVID-19 briefing Tuesday. "So all of us have a collective responsibility to educate the public that wearing a mask is the best thing to do.Putting people in jail, however, is the wrong approach for this thing. And that’s exactly what I believe the Dallas county judge wants to do is throw people in jail and that’s wrong. I will point out this, and that is Judge Jenkins has had available to him other tools of enforcement and he hasn’t lifted a finger to use those other tools of enforcement. And so he seems to be taking a somewhat two-faced approach as it concerns his pleas for enforcement. He needs to avail himself of the tools that are available to him for enforcement.”
“I’m talking about the county judge," Abbott went on, "whether it be the county judge or elsewhere, they do have the ability to impose fines, not for facemasks, but for other strategies. For example, the types of gatherings, people gather in certain locations, they may not be in compliance with the protocols, and this would be subject to fines. And even though judge Jenkins and any other local officials has had the authority to impose fines, they haven’t lifted a finger to do so.”
Wittman also sent a statement adding to the Governor's comments.
“None of these local officials have lifted a finger to impose penalties and enforcement mechanisms currently available to them. The one time a county judge did, a business owner wound up in jail," Wittman wrote in an email.
The letter from the mayors said that many people in their cities are not meeting the individual responsibility to wear a mask, and an enforceable mask order is key for slowing the spread in areas with tourism and high population density.
"A one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option," the letter says. "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."