An unmasked Gov. Abbott announced today that he was ordering everyone in Texas living in counties with 20 or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 to wear a mask or other face covering while out in public.
Trying to make the case that he was not reversing course in any sense, Abbott said he's always said if the "positivity rate increased too much," and if hospitalization numbers increased beyond a certain point (the Texas Medical Center has reported a 102 percent ICU beds occupancy rate) he would take action. "Both of those danger zones have now been triggered."
But he remained steadfast in maintaining this can be done "without mandating stay at home policies" and "without closing down Texas again."
"This is not a stay at home order. This just recognizes reality. If you don't go out you are less likely to encounter someone who has COVID-19," Abbott said.
The news comes on the same day as Houston is reporting close to a 25 percent positivity rate on COVID-19 testing — meaning that one out of every four people tested right now has the disease. "The virus is very prevalent in the community," Mayor Sylvester Turner said at his Thursday afternoon press conference.
Explaining he was stressing voluntary compliance because he didn't have the tools to mandate people wearing a mask, Turner said he was asking that people wear a mask at all times while in the presence of others over the next three weeks. He said he hoped a mask order would be mandated across the state — and as it turned out, it was as announced moments later by the governor.
Turner also preached social distancing and working remotely and asked businesses to reduce their occupancy from 50 to 25 percent. He asked churches and other houses of religious worship to resume virtual services. "I think it is critically important that we de-fuel this virus."
In the last month or so, COVID-19 in the Houston area has spread exponentially, Turner said. He urged people visiting parks on this Fourth of July weekend to keep moving rather than picnic or sit in large groups together. The city's annual Fourth of July celebration will not be open to visitors. Instead people are encouraged to watch it on TV or from afar since Eleanor Tinsley and Sam Houston parks will be closed.
There are some exceptions to the governor's order. Counties with fewer than 20 COVID-19 cases will be exempt from the governor's mask order.
Violators of the governor's mask order will not face severe repercussions. The first violation will get the miscreant a warning. Subsequent violations are subject to a fine not to exceed $250. "No one can ever be put in jail for violating this safe practice," he stressed.
"We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast there is little margin for error," Abbott said. "If we want to avoid lockdowns, if we want to protect those we care about, we need all Texans to join this wffort. We have slowed this spread before. We will do it again."
Or as Mayor Turner put it: "We are on an unsustainable course. We have a limited window to regain control."
The governor's video:
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And his executive order:
Schaefer Edwards contributed to this article.