No shirt, no shoes, no face masks, no service — introducing the new motto for Harris County businesses.
Amid sustained, dramatic increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the Houston area, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered businesses in the county to require their customers to wear face masks in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Hidalgo’s announcement came in a late Friday afternoon press conference, where she was joined in support of the policy by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Bob Harvey, President and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. Hidalgo issued the new face mask mandate in the wake of similar orders from local officials across Texas in recent days. The order goes into effect Monday, June 22, is applicable for all cities and unincorporated areas within Harris County and extends through the end of the month.
“We owe our community the certainty that we’re looking out for them,” said Hidalgo, explaining the rationale for her new mandate.
Hidalgo said the order as written calls that businesses who don’t abide could face a fine of $1,000 per violation, but that her office was awaiting guidance from the state government to determine the particulars of how any fines would be enforced. That said, Hidalgo made clear that her office wants to rely primarily on educating businesses on how best to comply as a first response, and hoped that fines won’t be necessary.
A wave of newly issued requirements for Texas businesses to make customers mask-up started earlier this week when Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued the first such order on Wednesday morning, which threatened businesses with a fine up to $1,000 if they don’t comply. In an interview later that day, Governor Greg Abbott approved Wolff’s mandate, congratulating him for having “finally figured out” that such a move was acceptable under the terms of the statewide reopening rules.
In the days that followed, Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued a similar order in his city, and the Dallas County Commissioners Court voted Friday morning to enact a similar rule for area businesses.
Abbott’s reopening guidelines explicitly overruled the previous face mask order Hidalgo issued in late April, which would have required all Harris County residents to wear a protective face covering when in public or face a $1,000 fine. After the highly publicized way that Abbott’s reopenings forbade city and county governments from penalizing individuals for failure to wear face masks, most political observers thought that local officials had their hands tied concerning their ability to require the use of face masks.
But in Abbott’s telling, the authority to compel businesses to mandate face mask use under penalty of a fine was included in his reopening guidelines all along. The key difference between previous mask order’s like Hidalgo’s first attempt back in April and her most recent order is the enforcement mechanism—in Abbott’s view, punishing individual Texans represents an infringement upon their liberty, but forcing businesses to make their customers wear masks is A-OK.
It’s a narrow distinction, one that’s elicited responses of confusion and consternation toward Abbott over the past several days. This latest round of criticism hasn’t only come from Democrats frustrated by the convoluted language in Abbott’s reopening guidelines. In an unedited podcast accidentally published Friday, two leaders of the hard right-wing state policy shop Empower Texans were heard disparaging Abbott in a vulgar conversation where they lambasted the governor for his unclear messaging in addition to mocking him for his use of a wheelchair.
“It’s like, I have created this riddle for you and you have figured out how to fuck your citizens with it,” said Empower Texans’ vice president Cary Cheshire in the unedited podcast.
Later in the recording, Empower Texans general counsel Tony McDonald alleged that Abbott “created a shitty policy that’s vague because he wanted to avoid accountability.”
Harvey of the Greater Houston Partnership said that the city’s main business advocacy organization was fully in favor of the new mask requirements. “If we want our region’s economy to remain open, “ Harvey said, “we have to be willing to take the appropriate steps necessary to protect one another. We believe that businesses have a responsibility in this effort to protect both their customers and their employees.”
Mayor Turner gave a warning to businesses who might be reticent to enact Hidalgo’s new rules for face masks. “You don’t have to comply,” Turner said, “but in the end, the employees and the customers are going to have the last say. And if they don’t feel safe, then they’re not going to show up.”
Hidalgo said she’s dismayed that crucial public health measures like wearing face masks had become politicized during this crisis, and sent a message to anyone who might try and undermine her latest order for political purposes.
“I fully expect some to try and sabotage this effort. To them I say, this is a serious time for serious solutions and serious people,” said Hidalgo. “For anybody who might seek to politicize this, this is not a time for grandstanding or scoring political points, and history will remember who did that.”
Hidalgo stressed that she hoped county businesses and residents would willingly comply with her new order, because the alternative would likely mean even more pain, suffering and death from the ongoing pandemic.
“Harris County, we may be running out of time,” she said, “so we’ve got to buckle down.”