In a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner signalled that he’s open to mandating that city businesses require their customers to wear face masks.
“I think we’ll take a look at it...We’ll do what we can, and I’ll certainly entertain it,” Turner said.
Turner’s remarks came one day after he and eight other Texas mayors sent a letter to Governor Greg Abbott requesting that they be granted the authority to broadly require citizens of their cities to wear face masks in public places.
The tactic of requiring businesses to enforce mask use by their customers came to the forefront on Wednesday when a San Antonio area official seemingly found a loophole of sorts in Abbott's statewide reopening orders which had explicitly prohibited local officials from penalizing residents for not wearing face masks.
On Wednesday morning, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued an order dictating that county businesses must require their customers and employees to wear face masks in instances where proper social distancing is impossible or unfeasible. Failure to do so would put those businesses at risk of paying a $1,000 fine.
In an interview with KWTX out of Waco hours later, Abbott admitted that Judge Wolff’s order wasn’t prohibited by his statewide reopening orders, because Wolff's order would only potentially penalize businesses and not individual Texans.
“All that was needed [was] for local officials to actually read the plan that was issued by the state of Texas,” Abbott said. “It turned out earlier today that the county judge in Bexar County finally figured that out...what they now realize they are capable of doing is that we want to make sure individual liberty is not infringed upon by government, and hence government cannot require individuals to wear masks.”
"[Businesses have] always had the opportunity and the ability, just like they can require people to wear shoes and shirts, these businesses can require people to wear face masks if they come into their businesses. Now local officials are just now realizing that that was authorized,” Abbott said.
Now that local officials have “finally figured out” what Abbott had refused to state plainly for the last several weeks, orders similar to the one implemented in Bexar County are being planned and considered across the state. Late Wednesday afternoon, Austin Mayor Steve Adler tweeted that his administration would put forth an order within the next few days requiring businesses to devise plans for face mask use among their customers. Citing the mask mandate loophole Abbott revealed in his KWTX interview, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins tweeted Wednesday afternoon that he’s “Glad @GovAbbott has listened to science and changed his mind.”
Mayor Turner said he spoke briefly about a face mask requirement mandate for local businesses with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday, who Turner said was in the process of “taking a look” at doing something similar at the county level. The Greater Houston Partnership, a major business advocacy organization in the area, would be open to supporting a mandate for businesses to require the use of face masks by customers, said Turner.
“If the numbers continue to rise… we will evaluate whether or not what they have done in Bexar County, in San Antonio, would be appropriate,” said Turner.
Turner started the press conference by announcing that the Houston Health Department reported 189 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing Houston’s cumulative case total to 10,507. He also reported that seven additional deaths from COVID-19 that took place over the past several weeks had been added to Houston’s official tally, which now stands at 169.
Moments later, Turner was joined by Shenila Momin, Chairperson of Focus Humanitarian USA and Murad Ajani, President of the Ismali Council for the Southwestern United States, two non-profit organizations associated with the Ismali Muslim community, to announce that their groups had donated 500,000 reusable face masks to the city of Houston for distribution to first responders, healthcare workers and at-risk Houstonians.
Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department also took the mike to describe recent troubling trends in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the city over the first two weeks of June.
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“Overall, we’ve already had as many people reporting to emergency departments in Houston with COVID-19 related symptoms in just two weeks that we did in the entire month (of May),” Persse said. Persse also explained that a disproportionate number of these patients were between the ages of 18-44, which he and Turner argued was likely due to a combination of older Houstonians taking greater precautionary measures and an allegedly more lax attitude from younger Houstonians.
“This younger population, they’re more cavalier as it relates to this virus,” said Turner. “They’re out there, they’re socializing quite a bit...they’re hitting the beaches hard, partying hard without the face masks on. No regard to social distancing.”
Turner stressed that it’s the personal responsibility of all Houstonians to abide by public health best practices like hand washing, social distancing, and use of face masks to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“This is a virus that is an equal-opportunity abuser,” said Turner. “If you allow it to attach to you, it will attach to you. Or if you allow it to use you as a carrier, it will infect your parents or your grandparents, or other people that you love.”