Today Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced she would issue new orders requiring residents to wear face coverings in public.
In her Wednesday afternoon press conference, Hidalgo said the orders would be effective on Monday, April 27, and last for 30 days.
Exemptions include children under 10 years of age and those with medical or mental health conditions that prevent safe mask use. Violators may face fines of $1,000, but Hidalgo said she will encourage law enforcement to use discretion.
“This is not a police state,” Hidalgo said. “This is about laying down the marker for what we’re doing…We have to make clear, it’s not a recommendation.”
After news of the impending orders broke Wednesday morning, reactions came quickly.
Houston Police Officers’ Union (HPOU) President Joe Gamaldi issued a statement saying officers were already stretched too thin with rising crime rates that include a 35 percent increase in murders and a 30 percent increase in burglaries.
“We do not have time to be pawns in Hidalgo’s game of attempting to control the actions of law abiding, tax paying individuals of our community.”
Gamaldi said the HPOU would be seeking an opinion from the attorney general on the legality of imposing a criminal penalty or fine for those not wearing a mask in public.
Harris County Deputies’ Organization also released a statement asking, “Who is going to enforce this order?”
Noting the Harris County Sheriff’s Office was already short-staffed, HCDO President David Cuevas wrote, “The citizens of Harris County are working hard together through this pandemic and do not need the added stress and fear of being fined or arrested for failing to wear a mask/face covering that they may not have.”
At the Houston City Council meeting earlier, District G Council Member Greg Travis had questioned Mayor Sylvester Turner about the new orders. Travis said he had a medical condition that prevented him from safely wearing a mask. Turner replied that he would urge Hidalgo to make a medical exception in her forthcoming order.
“I think people are adults and they need to know their own situation,” said Travis. “They shouldn’t have to disclose their medical conditions to the entire world…to get an exemption to these draconian laws.”
Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick also released a statement saying Hidalgo’s orders were being driven by “hypocrisy and hysteria.”
“On the same day Harris County Commissioner’s Court plans to close the $60 million-dollar pop-up hospital at NRG Park, because it wasn’t needed, Judge Lina Hidalgo orders anyone over the age of 10 to wear a mask in public. Her abuse of the use of executive orders is the ultimate government overreach. These kind of confused government policies fuel public anger – and rightfully so.”
Hidalgo says she bases her coronavirus orders on data from the South East Texas Regional Advisory Council (SETRAC). According to the SETRAC website, there have been 4,823 confirmed cases and 75 deaths in Harris County, and the case fatality rate is 1.6 percent.
Hidalgo has also called for increased testing to identify more of the asymptomatic individuals carrying coronavirus.
This order comes after Montgomery County, which neighbors Harris County, lifted its shelter-in-place order and rescinded its curfew last week.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer 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.