On Monday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced he has instructed the city’s police department to begin issuing warnings and citations to residents not compliant with state mask orders.
Although he clarified that police would not be responding to 911 calls or complaints about residents without masks, Turner said that city police officers on patrol would first warn individuals and then issue citations with a $250 fine for non-compliance.
Turner announced his new directive at a Monday afternoon press conference along with Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña, and Houston Public Health Director Dr. David Persse.
Noting that both the fire and police departments had lost employees to COVID-19, Acevedo urged residents to wear masks because, “We’ve got a lot of things going on in our city and our country and the last thing we need is to continue to get each other sick simply because we want to exercise our right.”
“We don’t want to write tickets, we want people to do the right thing,” added Acevedo.
Although initially Governor Greg Abbott had said mask orders were not enforceable, on July 2 he issued a statewide order requiring most residents over age 10 to wear masks in public places.
In his comments Turner acknowledged that the city had seen a decline in both hospitalizations and COVID-19 positivity rates.
Last week, Houston reported a positivity rate of more than 23 percent, but as of Monday the rate had fallen to 17.6 percent. Turner, along with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, says stringent policies must be observed until the rate falls below 5 percent.
Over the weekend, employees with the Houston Health Department began distributing door hangers and walking some neighborhoods as part of a new media campaign to educate the public on COVID-19 prevention measures.
Last Friday Turner said the campaign, entitled “Better Together,” would also utilize television, radio, print, and digital media in multiple languages to remind residents to practice social distancing, wear masks, and wash hands regularly.
The Harris County Public Health Department will also be launching a media campaign to educate the public about COVID-19, after the commissioners court approved a new $1 million request from County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
Hidalgo said the $1 million would cover initial design, message testing, and an initial launch, but that the effort would likely need additional funding later.
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) objected because although he voiced support for a public service announcement, he wanted details about which vendor would be receiving the contract, what process would be used to select a vendor, how much profit would be included, and specifics about content of the materials to be produced.
“If I’m just voting for a blank check of a million dollars, and I don’t know who it’s going to or what it’s going for or what it’s going to be, I’m not comfortable,” Said Cagle.
County purchasing agent DeWight Dopslauf said he did not have any details since the health department would be handling the program, but Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) said it was important to get it done that day. The measure passed on a 3-2 party-line vote.
Houston and Harris County, as the most populous region of Texas, have continued to experience high coronavirus numbers and according to the Department of State Health Services has reported 72,964 confirmed cases and 1,288 deaths.
Hospitalization rates have been trending downward since last week, and the Texas Medical Center reported that new daily average COVID-19 admissions had fallen to 197 last week after peaking at 360 in early July.
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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.