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Texas communities grapple with COVID-19 ordinances over mask wearing

Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the state, local officials are looking at ways to increase compliance without overstepping Gov. Greg Abbott’s mandates.

In the Panhandle, hospital systems have been strained for nearly a month.

“Right now. Amarillo does not have enough ICU beds. We don’t have any hospitals, or ventilators, telemetry units—you go to one hospital and the lab people are sick,” Dr. Whit Walker with Texas Tech Physicians explained.

That’s why Amarillo City Council voted Monday to pass a new ordinance that will require businesses to tell patrons to wear a mask.

“No matter what your opinion is on masks, I respect your opinion, whether it’s the same as mine are different than mine. But I am responding to what healthcare workers are asking and telling us that we need,” Mayor Ginger Nelson said Monday.

She explained the businesses would not be in charge of enforcing it but would have to display that masks are required indoors.

“We’re not asking them to police things. We’re not asking them to enforce things. We’re just asking them to be a partner with us in helping our hospital workers and to decrease the number of people that are in our hospitals,” Nelson explained.

Businesses that do not comply will be fined, but they can fight the fine in court just like they would a typical citation. Other cities that have tried to enforce additional restrictions have faced challenges.

In El Paso, where hospitals have been at capacity since October, the county judge ordered a stay-at-home order. Shortly after, a federal court ruled he did not have that authority.

Abbott said the judge wasn’t properly enforcing what was already in place.

“Some local officials are not using the tools that are available to them, to make sure that they are taking every step they need. So just giving more tools won’t mean anything,” Abbott said in a press conference last week.

Nelson said she’s confident Amarillo’s new rule abides by what the governor has put in place.

“That was carefully researched by our city legal team. And I feel like we’re standing confidently that we’re in a good position on that,” Nelson explained.

When asked to provide specific examples of how cities could better enforce the governor’s existing mandates, the Office of the Governor provided this statement:

“Under the Governor’s executive orders, local officials and law enforcement are encouraged and empowered to enforce existing protocols to help mitigate this virus, such as the mask mandate, and occupancy limits under law, as they did before the pandemic hit. Working with our local partners and business leaders, the State of Texas has assisted with that enforcement by deploying additional TABC officials to ensure compliance. The protocols are proven to work, but only if they are enforced, as with any law.”

– Renae Eze, spokesperson

Walker Monday said he’s glad the city council passed the new rule.

“We need help. We need people to wear their masks and stay healthy. We need to decrease, at least decrease the acceleration,” Walker said.

He said he wishes masks had not become so political.

“We’ve gotten so divisive in this country where, ‘I don’t listen to you’ and ‘you don’t listen to me,’ and we were fighting over stuff that doesn’t need to be fought over. This mask does not kill people. It does save lives,” Walker said.

Walker says he wishes everyone would just listen to the science.

“It just does not have to be cough or sneeze. If I just breathe, I can move that virus five feet. And if you’re standing in my way, God help you, because you may have just gotten sick,” Walker said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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