Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced in a late-afternoon press conference that she has issued an executive order requiring masks to be worn inside businesses in the county. Hidalgo said the …
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced in a late-afternoon press conference that she has issued an executive order requiring masks to be worn inside businesses in the county. Hidalgo said the reason for the order is that cases of COVID-19 are rising dramatically and her office is working to curb the increase.
“Per (Tex. Gov. Greg Abbott’s) new guidance, I’ve signed an order that requires businesses to require the wearing of face coverings,” Hidalgo said. “This order requires businesses to have a plan and implement a plan that – at minimum – requires anyone 10 years or older to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth whether they’re visiting the business or are employees.”
Hidalgo said the intention is not to implement a “police state” but to educate and prevent the spread of the disease in the county. Face coverings include medical masks, scarfs, homemade masks and other coverings that cover the nose and mouth, she said. Exceptions include when exercising, driving, pumping fuel, when in a building with enhanced security such as banks, when wearing the mask poses a health risk such as when someone has a mental health concern and eating as has been the case since health orders began to be issued, she said. Hidalgo said the face masks enhance the protections of social distancing and does not replace social distancing. She urged all county residents to continue to avoid contact with others outside their homes, wash hands and follow other good hygiene practices.
Businesses have five days to implement and post a plan. Failure to do so may result in a fine of up to $1,000; however, law enforcement officers have discretion and have focused on educating violators of executive orders throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Masks will also be required in Harris County offices, Hidalgo said.
“Face mask or no face mask, we should not be going anywhere where we are in close contact with people who do not share our household over an extended period of time,” Hidalgo said. “To the extent that we continue to do that we will inch closer and closer and closer to a point of crisis.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that masks be worn in addition to social distancing. The organization cites seven different studies which support that assessment, including studies that examine asymptomatic transmission of the new coronavirus which causes COVID-19.
Hidalgo said the order will help residents know what to expect when entering businesses and set all Harris County businesses up on the same level because everyone will be requiring masks in order to protect public health, so there is no disincentivizing of mask enforcement due to a fear of lost business.
“Every business has a ‘no shoes, no shirt, no service’ policy, so they’re equipped to deal with this,” Hidalgo said. “… The idea is to see this as ‘no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.’”
The order itself indicates that it complies with the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 which establishes how government bodies in Texas must manage disasters.
Hidalgo said the county had 215 new COVID-19 cases outside the city of Houston to report today and that sharp daily upticks in cases over the last several days was a factor in deciding to issue the order. She also said the COVID-19 threat level is currently at a two, which indicates the county has “significant uncontrolled spread in the community.” Countywide, Harris County has crossed the 18,500-case mark since the pandemic began, she said.
“It is so crucial that all of us modify our behavior because that’s the only thing that’s going to keep us from going into a crisis, and of course we won’t see the impacts of (the mask order) for another two (to) three weeks of what we’re doing today,” Hidalgo said.
Of those cases, 11,582 are active, 7,846 are reported as recovered and 311 patients have died from the illness, according to ReadyHarris.org. The city of Katy has seen 64 of those cases.
Within the city of Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city’s health department was reporting 972 new cases of COVID-19, but many of those were reported today due to a delay in processing tests by the Texas Department of State Health Services. That brings the total number of infections to 11,689 since the pandemic began, he said. DSHS told Houston officials that nearly 90% of those cases were from tests dating between June 5 and June 10. He also reported six new deaths in the city, bringing the number to 181.
“I wish we had better news to report, but the truth is we’re still seeing very disturbing trends in COVID-19 hospitalizations and we are seeing those rates of admissions rise with an increasing rate each day – the numbers are only getting worse.”
Harris County Health Authority Dr. Umair Shah said the new coronavirus is still a significant health risk throughout the county.
“COVID-19 is a serious, serious disease. It is a disease that we are seeing increased cases not just across our community (or) the region but really across Texas and we’re also really concerned about what’s happening in our hospital health care system,” Shah said.
Hospitals that had previously seen a flattened statistical curve of new cases are seeing increases in patient admissions for COVID-19, Shah said.
“We know that face coverings reduce the ability for somebody that is either asymptomatic – without symptoms – or presymptomatic – before they actually do start to show symptoms but they are still infected – for that individual to infect or expose someone else,” Shah said.
Hidalgo said that space is still available in the county’s hospitals and the average age of patients is moving into younger populations but still urged caution to Harris County residents.
“To be clear, just because there is a bed for you right now, doesn’t mean we want you there. The goal is not to have enough room for you or anybody to die in the hospital. That is not the goal,” Hidalgo said. “Each bed that is taken up in our hospitals is a bed for someone with a stroke, a pregnant woman needing to give (birth), a heart attack that may not be available for them anymore.”
Note: This article has been updated to include information regarding the possible penalty for violating the executive order.