Dallas County is the latest in a series of counties and cities across the state looking to reinstate mask requirements, this time by placing the onus on businesses to implement a “Health and Safety Policy” that includes requiring face coverings for their employees and customers, separation, and other mitigation techniques to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Governor Abbott walked back his order of April 27 that prohibited fines for failure to wear a face mask.
Dr. Bob Haley, an infectious disease doctor at UT Southwestern told the commissioners court that mandatory masking is critical to controlling the spread of COVID-19, saying that there had been a large increase in the number of cases in Dallas recently.
Dallas County currently has 4,796 active cases of COVID-19, with about 400 of those being hospitalized as of Thursday. The county does not report the number of recoveries. Dallas County has a population of over 2.6 million.
“The power of public health is in the messaging,” Haley said, telling the commissioners that they were needed as partners in spreading the message about the importance of wearing masks. Haley added that studies show where masks are required the number of active cases is going down.
All of the commissioners seemed to agree that wearing masks was important in the fight against COVID-19, but disagreed about how a mask order should be implemented and whether it would have a disproportionate impact on small, minority-owned businesses.
Price and Koch both questioned why the county needed the order when businesses can already require masks if they so desire.
“Why are we going down this road? [Businesses] can control their own doors. Let the free market control,” Price emphasized.
Members from the business community, like John Stevens of the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce, expressed that he thought the order would encourage economic recovery and provide ways for consumers to safely engage in commerce.
“We need you to take leadership to get the word out to the community,” he told the commissioners court.
Gary Huddleston of the Texas Retailer’s Association also encouraged the mask order, pointing out a disparity when a customer might choose to visit a business not requiring masks that was located near one that did require them.
“That’s called the free market,” Price told Huddleston. “I’ll join you in encouraging the use of masks, but I don’t want the heavy hand of government enforcing masks.”
The enforcement concern was voiced by several of the commissioners.
“When we get involved, enforcement comes with guys with guns. We’ve just finished a long dialogue and discussion about enforcement of minor offenses that end up leading to a situation where a minority ends up with a guy on the back of their neck,” Koch said.
Garcia said she couldn’t support an order that included the “heavy hand of law enforcement” requiring masks. She proposed an amendment that would make violations a fine only, but her amendment didn’t clarify who would issue the citation for a violation.
“Who’s going to enforce it?” Price yelled repeatedly in frustration.
Russ Roden, chief of the Dallas County District Attorney’s civil division, told the court that the order allows for a citation that could be issued by municipal police departments. He wasn’t clear about who would enforce it for the county, but citations would have to be directed to some court that could provide due process to the person receiving a citation.
Price and Koch both pointed out that even if the county health department enforces the order, the county nuisance abatement officers who would be checking on compliance are still law enforcement officers.
Jenkins indicated that in the six weeks when a mask order was in place earlier this year, only 12 citations were issued. “To some extent, we are arguing about something that won’t happen.”
“It only takes one to cause a major riot,” Koch expressed.
Commissioners Elba Garcia (D) and Theresa Daniel (D) joined Judge Clay Jenkins (D) in approving the order while Commissioners John Wiley Price (D) and J.J. Koch (R) opposed it.
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Kim Roberts is a regional reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.