Following a steady decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases, on May 18, Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting government entities in the state from requiring “any person” to wear a face covering.
During the May 25 meeting of the court, county Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) proposed revisions to mask policy that requires employees entering county buildings “for any purpose associated with their official job duties” to wear face coverings.
Exceptions to the language adopted by commissioners include times when the employee is alone in a room “behind a closed door” or at least six feet away from others, has a medical condition or disability that prevents wearing face coverings, or is consuming food or drink and keeping a safe distance. Employees may be exempt from wearing masks and social distancing however, if they participate in the county’s “Silver Sticker” program.
Under the program, employees must sign a document stating they meet the “definition of being fully vaccinated as defined by [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] guidelines,” and that they are “voluntarily providing proof of vaccination” to human resources. Approved employees are then given a sticker to wear on employee badges, which must be shown to screeners when entering county-owned or controlled facilities.
Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) took note of the possible conflict with Abbott’s executive order, GA 36, and last week his office requested an opinion from the Texas attorney general on the matter. Ramsey’s office told The Texan they had received a verbal response from the chief of the General Counsel Division saying the policy put forth was in opposition of the governor’s executive order.
At this week’s commissioners court meeting, Ramsey referred to the policy as “mask confusion,” and said employees were confused by the language.
He proposed changing the policy to state, “Harris County does not require staff or visitors to wear a mask. Harris County employees are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated and follow CDC COVID guidelines.”
Hidalgo objected, saying the court had already approved a county-wide policy and asserted that participation in the sticker program that would give employees a “visible identifier” of vaccine status was voluntary.
“The question I have…referencing the governor’s mandate that no one can be required to wear a mask, [is] this policy in keeping with what the governor has said?” asked Ramsey.
Hidalgo responded that according to the county attorney’s office, the governor’s order only applied to visitors, not employees.
Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer told commissioners the policy as written did give employees the option to not mask if they were following CDC guidelines.
“The policy is ‘wear a mask or you can be socially distant and not wear a mask,’” said Aiyer. “The ‘or’ is why we are in compliance with GA 36.”
“I’m just trying to protect unvaccinated employees,” said Hidalgo. “I don’t want to include different language. I’m just saying what we passed at the last court was in compliance with the order.”
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) disagreed with that assessment saying, “The governor’s order says you don’t have to wear a mask. You say you do, unless you qualify under the sub-part of the small print on the second policy.”
Ramsey and Cagle also expressed concerns over using the Silver Sticker program as a means of exempting employees from certain policies.
“I think we need to be careful when we start asking people to reveal their status with HIPPA requirements,” said Cagle.
Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) accused opponents of the policy of playing politics.
“It has been prudent on your part to follow the science not the politics,” Ellis told Hidalgo.
Commissioners rejected Ramsey’s proposed language change in a 3 to 2 partisan vote.
Hidalgo motioned for language allowing employees with vaccination stickers to be exempt from not only masking and social distancing but also from temperature screenings on entering county buildings.
Cagle agreed to vote for Hidalgo’s motion while expressing concern over the policy as a whole. Ramsey voted against saying that he was not opposed to the policy, but was still concerned about conflict with GA 36.
In comments to The Texan, Ramsey explained that the policy should encourage employees to be vaccinated, but even with tweaks to the language, he was concerned that there would be legal conflict with the governor’s order.
“Employees who fill out the [Silver Sticker] form and get a hologram on their badge, they get to do one thing while people that don’t do that have to do another. You can’t do that, and we did not even get into the vaccine passport issue.”
On Monday, Abbott signed Senate Bill 968 which prohibits businesses from requiring vaccine passports from customers.
The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
As of Wednesday morning, the county attorney’s office was reportedly still working on the exact language of the policy to be published.
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Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.