Hidalgo issues order for all Harris Co. residents to wear masks in public

By R. Hans Miller | Times Senior Reporter
Posted 4/22/20

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced at a press conference today that starting April 27, people will need to wear face masks when out in public in Harris County per an order she is issuing. …

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Hidalgo issues order for all Harris Co. residents to wear masks in public

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Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced at a press conference today that starting April 27, people will need to wear face masks when out in public in Harris County per an order she is issuing. Exceptions for those ten years of age and younger and those with medical – including mental health – conditions are included in the order, which is enforceable with up to a $1,000 fine.

“And let me explain briefly why,” Hidalgo said. “The latest research on this virus tells us that even if you are not symptomatic, you still could carry the (new coronavirus) and so those particles when you sneeze, when cough – or are even in just close proximity to others – you could end up being a carrier and giving the virus to somebody else, and so face masks protect us from that transmission.”

The order, has no jail time associated with it as Hidalgo’s Stay Home, Work Safe order did, requires people to wear face masks in public, but Harris County Health Authority Dr. Umair Shah and Hidalgo said the face masks do not need to be medical grade masks such as KN95 or similar masks. Shah said residents should use homemade masks or use scarves or handkerchiefs rather than medical masks in order to save medical-grade equipment for physicians and hospitals in the area.

Hidalgo said the order would go into effect Monday rather than immediately in order to allow residents time to obtain a mask.

“It’s absolutely critical that it does not have to be a (medical grade) mask. In fact, we don’t want it to be a medica grade mask. We don’t want it to be a surgical mask. We don’t want it to be an N95 mask – those should be reserved for health care providers. This is a facial cloth covering,” Shah said.

While a fine is associated with the order, it is unknown how often it will be enforced. Thus far, law enforcement agencies throughout the Katy area have focused on education and requesting compliance from businesses and residents that have violated orders in not only Harris County, but in Fort Bend and Waller counties as well.

Additionally, the Houston Police Officers Union has issued a statement encouraging members to use discretion in enforcing what they called Hidalgo’s “draconian measures.” In the statement, the union also said they agree that everyone should be wearing masks at this time. The letter expressed concern regarding how overworked officers in the area already are.

“Houston Police Officers are already stretched entirely too thin during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement which was digitally signed by HPOU FOP Lodge 101 President Joe Gamaldi read. “… HPD officers are staffing testing centers across the city. We do not have time to be pawns in Hidalgo’s game of attempting to control the actions of law abiding, tax paying individuals of our community.”

Harris County’s law enforcement has had hundreds of officers exposed and then quarantined for exposure to the novel coronavirus which causes the COVID-19 disease, a statement from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said.

“There are currently 369 Harris County Sheriff’s Office deputies, detention officers and support staff on quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure. As of Wednesday, 188 previously quarantined employees have returned to duty,” the HCSO statement read.

Hidalgo said she had spoken with medical professionals and Harris County's attorneys prior to issuing the order and had been assured that it was both practical and legal to issue the order. 

Hidalgo said the measures she has taken and the participation of the public have so far succeeded in keeping case counts low and keeping hospitals from being overwhelmed. She said it is important to keep the spread as low as possible so that, as the community begins to open back up again over the next several days, it does not then have to shut back down as cases spike up rapidly.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city will be distributing 70,000 masks to disadvantaged residents in the next few days to ensure their ability to comply with Hidalgo’s order. A press conference to provide details for the distribution will be held April 23 at 3 p.m.

Houston Health Authority Dr. Davide Persse said hospital admissions are the number he is most concerned about. While only a small percentage of area residents have tested positive with 5,211 confirmed cases in the area, the concern is more about keeping the number of cases needing ICU beds low to ensure treatment is available for everyone that may need to be hospitalized. Even as businesses begin to open back up under loosened restrictions from Tex. Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, Persse said people would need to remain careful by wearing masks and continuing to practice social distancing.

“The virus is not gone. It is still here and if we give it an opportunity, it will take it,” Persse said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with clarifications after review of the order.

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