In a memorandum issued Monday, Turner stated that all employees must wear face coverings while on city premises and in any areas where social distance measures are difficult to maintain. The policy allows exceptions for those who cannot “medically tolerate a face covering,” and for employees alone in an office or workspace to remove masks.
The policy does not exempt those vaccinated for COVID-19.
Houston Health Director Stephen Williams released a statement in support of the mask requirements citing concerns over the presence of the Delta variant as a driver of caseload and hospitalization increases.
“Although rare, data show that fully vaccinated people who become infected by Delta may spread it just as easily as people who are not vaccinated,” said Williams.
“Until enough of the population is fully vaccinated to offer broader protection, we must wear face coverings in public indoor settings to slow the spread of this aggressive variant.”
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been on the rise in the region since the beginning of July, with the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council (SETRAC) reporting a little over 400 hospitalizations on June 30, compared to more than 1,500 on August 2 out of an estimated population of 4.8 million people.
Turner cites rising trends as the reason for the reimplementation of mask orders for city employees, but makes no mention of conflict with state authority on the matter.
Last week, Abbott issued a new executive order that prohibits local authorities from reinstating capacity restrictions on businesses but also reiterates his previous prohibitions on government mask mandates.
According to the text of Executive Order GA-38, “No governmental entity, including a county, city, school district, and public health authority, and no governmental official may require any person to wear a face covering or mandate that another person wear a face covering.”
Exceptions are allowed for state-supported living centers, government-owned or operated hospitals, and both state and local jails.
Abbott’s order states that the imposition of any limitation or face covering requirement by “a local governmental entity or official constitutes a ‘failure to comply with’ this executive order that is subject to a fine up to $1,000.”
Under the previous executive orders, county judges could have reinstated lockdown measures in COVID-19 hospitalizations exceeding 15 percent capacity in a given region for seven consecutive days. According to SETRAC, Harris County is now at 14.23 percent with the region slightly above the 15 percent threshold.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced last month that the COVID-19 threat level had been moved back up to “Level 2: Orange,” under which residents are urged to minimize all contacts unless fully vaccinated.
Harris County policy has continued to require face coverings for employees who are not fully vaccinated as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, and Hidalgo has not announced any changes to this policy as of Wednesday.
Neighboring Fort Bend County Judge KP George also announced Tuesday morning that the county’s threat level had been raised to orange and that he would reinstate health screenings for employees and visitors to county facilities.
During a press conference with George, Dr. Peter Hotez, a pediatrician and professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, blamed much of the surge on “anti-vaccine aggression” and a lack of younger people obtaining vaccines.
Houston’s new mask requirement for employees regardless of vaccination status will take effect Wednesday, August 4. Employees who self-report having fully received COVID-19 vaccinations will receive incentives that include health insurance discounts.
“It is so very important that we remain vigilant in doing our part to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” wrote Turner.
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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.