Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order for businesses isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
In a Tuesday meeting, the Harris County Commissioners Court voted 3-2 along party lines to extend the county’s official COVID-19 disaster declaration—and thereby Hidalgo’s mask order which is linked to the county’s disaster status—by nearly two months through August 26.
A temporary extension through July 15 was listed as an agenda item for Tuesday’s meeting, but at the behest of Commissioner Adrian Garcia, the Commissioners Court voted to extend through the bulk of the summer. Garcia was joined by fellow Democrats Hidalgo and Commissioner Rodney Ellis in supporting the extension, while Republican Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack voted against the move.
Hidalgo’s mask order was originally issued Friday, June 19 and requires county businesses to enforce the use of face masks by all customers age 10 and over and all employees on their premises in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Businesses who are caught disobeying the order are subject to a fine of up to $1,000, although Hidalgo’s office insists that their main focus is on educating businesses and the public about complying rather than levying fines.
The narrowly tailored mask mandate is a byproduct of Gov. Abbott’s statewide reopening rules that explicitly forbid local government entities from penalizing individual Texans for not wearing face masks, which came after Hidalgo’s previous attempt at a mask order with proposed penalty fines for individuals back in late April.
The first Texas mask order for businesses came from Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff in a creative attempt to figure out a way to increase mask use by Texans without any enforceable provisions against state residents. Once Abbott gave Wolff’s order his blessing, Hidalgo and other local officials throughout the state implemented similar mask mandates, including in the city of Austin and in Dallas County. In the greater Houston area, both Fort Bend County and the city of Galveston have issued mask orders similar to Hidalgo’s. Fort Bend County extended their mask order through July 31 on Tuesday as well.
Tuesday’s disaster declaration and mask order extension follows the rapidly increasing spread of the coronavirus pandemic throughout Harris County and Texas as a whole. According to the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, Harris County hospitals had 1,630 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients in their facilities as of Tuesday afternoon, a new record high for the county that’s over five times the patient count from Memorial Day.
On Friday, Harris County raised the public COVID-19 threat level to the highest ranking, which is predicated on the coronavirus spreading at an uncontrolled level within the region. Friday's threat increase was also accompanied by a plea from Hidalgo for Harris County residents to stay home if at all possible, although she no longer has the authority to issue a mandatory stay home order thanks to Gov. Abbott's reopening guidelines that stripped that authority from local officials.
Hidalgo is currently in self-isolation after having been potentially exposed to COVID-19 last week by a staffer in her office who tested positive for the disease. Hidalgo hasn't experienced any symptoms and said she's "feeling great" in a Monday tweet. Update 8:30 p.m.: Hidalgo tweeted Tuesday night that her COVID-19 test came back negative, but she would still continue to self-quarantine until July 6, which would be two weeks after her potential exposure in accordance with CDC recommendations.
Gov. Abbott has rolled-back the state’s reopening in recent days by re-closing bars and nightclubs and reducing restaurant occupancy limits to 50 percent. Last week, Abbott also issued an order suspending elective surgeries in Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties in order to expand the hospital beds available for COVID-19 patients. On Tuesday, Abbott added Cameron, Hidalgo, Nueces and Webb counties to that list.
The county Commissioners Court also voted unanimously Tuesday to approve $18 million for a new public-private partnership to support programs serving the area’s homeless population over the next two years amid the coronavirus pandemic. Private donors have committed $9 million to the cause, and the City of Houston is also set to commit $29 million to the initiative.