Following several major Texas cities, some county cities have issued orders requiring businesses to mandate their customers wear face masks or strong recommendations that people use face coverings essentially everywhere in public to slow spread of COVID-19.
La Marque and Galveston officials hoped to persuade residents — either by mandate or strong urging — to wear masks as coronavirus cases in the county rise. La Marque this weekend issued a proclamation — not an order — urging the use of face masks, while Galveston on Monday issued an order that puts the onus on businesses to ensure people are covering their mouths and noses.
The efforts by each city comes as cases rise in the county and face masks become a political flash point and a personal statement.
The Galveston order, effective 12:01 a.m. today, requires all employees and visitors to a business premises to wear face coverings when proximity to other people will be less than 6 feet apart, according to the language.
The intent of the order is to apply to any entity that serves the public, city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.
That includes nonprofits and city of Galveston properties, she said.
Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough hinted last week he might issue a proclamation ahead of the Galveston City Council’s regular meeting Thursday, when the council is set to decide whether to extend the order.
Galveston’s order expires June 30, because mayoral orders can only be in effect for a week.
Masks can reduce the spread of coronavirus, but they also remind people to take pandemic precautions, Yarbrough said.
“It raises the consciousness of being more careful,” Yarbrough said.
Businesses and other organizations that don’t abide by the order will be subjected to a fine of up to $1,000 but will have five days after the order’s effective date to comply, according to the order language.
People don’t have to wear a mask when eating or drinking at restaurants, when driving alone or with members of their household, when exercising outdoors or when pumping gas, according to the order.
People, businesses and entities also can’t organize any outdoor gathering expected to attract more than 100 people without mayoral approval, according to the order.
Galveston is the first city in the county to issue a masking order with potential fines.
La Marque issued a proclamation this weekend urging people to wear masks — but those who choose not to heed the plea can’t be fined for non-compliance.
La Marque Mayor Bobby Hocking issued a proclamation strongly urging people to wear face coverings. But despite some confusion, the plea was not an order and doesn’t have any fines attached to it, Hocking said.
“I wanted to give people a chance to do it on their own,” Hocking said.
BURDEN ON BUSINESS?
Galveston’s order isn’t meant to be a burden on businesses, Yarbrough said.
“There aren’t a lot of tools that the city has at its disposal to help curb this virus,” Yarbrough said.
And enforcement will be a challenge, Yarbrough said. The city plans to dispatch marshals to inform businesses about the rules and make sure they’re complying, Yarbrough said.
The city plans to issue warnings initially before citing businesses, he said.
“It raises a lot of potential issues,” Yarbrough said. “And we’re just going to have to deal with them.”
But for some businesses, it’s a welcome rule.
“I do not think it’s that big of a burden on businesses to help the city control COVID,” said Johnny Smecca, a principal of Galveston Restaurant Group.
The company owns restaurants Saltwater Grill, The Gumbo Diner and Papa’s Pizza, among others.
“I have a staff to take care of, and that staff deserves to be protected from the public,” Smecca said. “We’re protecting the public by wearing masks and using sanitation. The public has to have some sense of protecting us as well.”
Galveston modeled its language after Bexar County’s order, Yarbrough said.
Bexar County, which encompasses San Antonio, was the first Texas government to issue an order that required businesses to mandate masking, but others such as Austin and Dallas have followed suit.
Harris County’s similar orders went into effect Monday.
In a Wednesday interview with Waco-area TV station KWTX, Gov. Greg Abbott said the new rules did not violate his June 3 executive order barring local governments from imposing fines on people who don’t wear masks.
In a press conference Monday, Abbott urged people to wear face masks, adding that if spikes in cases continue, additional measures will be necessary.
Other county leaders aren’t planning on any such rules.
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said he won’t issue a county-wide order similar to the city’s.
“I am encouraging personal responsibility and have been advised by my general counsel that an executive order is not lawful and will subject us to costly litigation we are likely to lose,” Henry said. “In Texas, cities have the power to create local ordinances where the county does not.”
The Galveston City Council will meet in a regularly scheduled meeting Thursday, when the council is scheduled to discuss its stance on masking.