AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Officials in the San Antonio area on Wednesday ordered people to wear face masks in public when social distancing isn’t possible and warned that businesses could face fines of up to $1,000 for failing to comply with county health policies in the next five days.
Shortly after the local order was issued in one of Texas’ most populous counties, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said other local governments are free to do the same. Abbott had previously refused to include mask requirements in his earlier statewide orders.
The executive order from Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff came amid hospitalization rates as Texas continues to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg joined Wolff in a press conference to say they are concerned younger people will get infected with COVID-19 and take the virus home to older family members. People younger than 40 are showing the most infections in the area, the mayor said.
“What we are doing here is to protect the life and safety of the San Antonio community,” Nirenberg said.
The local order comes a day after Abbott acknowledged that many Texans have become lax about wearing masks and social distancing as his statewide virus restrictions have been lifted. He urged them to take greater personal responsibility for stopping the spread but said he would not require the general public to wear masks.
In May, Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton lashed out at the cities of San Antonio, Dallas and Austin over what he called “unlawful” local orders that are tougher than restrictions prescribed by Abbott, and threatened lawsuits if the cities don’t back off.
In an interview with television station KWTX, Abbott said his state order would have allowed this move by Bexar County long ago, adding county officials had “finally figured that out.”
“We want to make sure individual liberty is not infringed upon by government and hence government cannot require individuals to wear masks,” Abbott said.
“Local governments can require stores and businesses to require masks …. They’ve always had the opportunity and ability, just like they can require people people to wear shoes and shirts, these businesses can require people to wear face masks.”
Nine mayors of Texas’ largest cities, including San Antonio and Dallas, sent a bipartisan letter yesterday to Abbott, a Republican, asking for local governments to have the authority to enforce the use of face coverings.
Texas hit a record high for COVID-19 hospitalizations Wednesday with 2,793, an 85% increase since Memorial Day. The state has set a record for hospitalizations nine of the last 10 days. Abbott insisted Texas hospitals can handle the rising numbers of patients and the Republican has routinely touted available hospital space and intensive care beds as proof hospitals won’t be overwhelmed.
On Wednesday, Texas health officials reported 13,815 hospital beds available overall with 1,473 ICU beds.
Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrman said Wednesday her symptoms while battling COVID-19 were “quite severe” but she is now recovered.
Lehrman is one of nine judges on the state’s highest court for civil law. She announced May 21 that she and her husband Greg tested positive for the coronavirus despite being diligent about following social distancing guidelines. She is the highest-ranking state official in Texas known to test positive for the virus.
“Greg & I are so thankful for the many kind thoughts and prayers that undoubtedly helped us through this challenging time. Although my symptoms became quite severe, we are both fine with negative test results. Now, on to donating our plasma to help others!” Lehrman tweeted in announcing recovery.
Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.