Tarrant County will require face masks at all businesses amid surge of COVID-19 cases

June 25,2020

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Anna M. Tinsley here.

Face masks will be required in all Tarrant County businesses and at outdoor gatherings with more than 100 people, County Judge Glen Whitley announced Thursday.

The executive order goes into effect at 6 p.m. Friday and will run through 6 a.m. Aug. 3.

“This marks the next stage in our fight against COVID-19,” said Whitley in making the announcement. “In an effort not to have to go back to the restrictions of March ... I believe masks are our best alternative at this time.”

“If you leave home, put on a mask.”

Whitley was joined by Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams, Burleson Mayor Ken Shetter and several doctors and health officials in making the announcement during a morning press conference.

It is up to cities to enforce the order. Businesses that don’t comply could face a fine of up to $1,000. The Fort Worth order sets the fine at $500.

The new order was prompted by a spike in coronavirus cases in Tarrant County, which on Thursday reached 10,363 cases and includes 218 deaths. Public health officials have warned of “substantial” viral spread.

The order does not include churches, which are exempted under a previous order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Whitley said. It does “strongly urge” people 10 or older to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth in public areas, especially when it’s hard to stay six feet away from other people.

Face coverings include masks, scarves, bandannas or a handkerchief. And residents are asked to maintain social distancing of at least six feet from others when not in their own homes. But those who have a “significant mental or physical health risk” to wearing a mask do not have to comply, according to the ordinance.

At restaurants, for example, people should wear a mask when walking in and keep it on until they are seated. Then they can take the mask off. But if they get up to walk around, or go to the restroom, they should put the mask back on, officials said.

Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia said this does not apply to polling places for the July 14 election. “No one can impose requirements on any voter to come inside a polling place,” he said. Early voting runs from June 29-July 10.

Before this announcement, Tarrant County was the most populated urban area in Texas that had not required masks.

“It’s not comfortable and it’s not cool,” said Price, who attended the announcement virtually. “But COVID is not comfortable or cool.

“Do it for someone you love.”

Williams said this is not an ordinance that officials wanted to put in place.

He said he realizes that people are frustrated, tired and want coronavirus eradicated.

“Do we want to require masks? No, we don’t want to, but we have to,” Williams said. “We have to fight the virus. It isn’t gone.”

He added that the masks will work and help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Let’s get our lives back,” Williams said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended wearing “cloth face coverings” in public “especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

That’s because even people who don’t have coronavirus symptoms can spread the virus to others by talking, sneezing or coughing.

“We’ve been following the science, and I think that’s important for everyone to understand,” said Susan Bailey, an allergist in Fort Worth who serves as president of the American Medical Association. “This needs to be about science and research, and not about emotion and politics.

“I think it’s important to remember that back to business doesn’t meant business as usual. We are going to have to do things differently for a while until we get this very deadly disease under control.”

As COVID-19 cases skyrocket across the state, Abbott has urged people to stay at home, but declined to put in place mask requirements or new stay-at-home orders. He did say local officials could put mask requirements in place for businesses but not individuals.

More than half a dozen Texas counties — including Dallas, Harris, Bexar, Travis, Hidalgo and El Paso — already put in place orders requiring that businesses require face masks or face fines of as much as $1,000.

Abbott on Thursday issued an order suspending elective surgeries at hospitals in Bexar, Dallas, Harris and Travis counties. He also paused further reopening plans.

“Please, for the love of God, put on a mask,” Shetter said.

Whitley said that unfortunately the issue of whether or not to wear masks has become political.

“This is not a political issue,” he said. “It’s an issue of whether we are going to have respect for the folks around us.

“Wear the mask. Yes it’s inconvenient. None of us like wearing the masks,” he said. “If we can save a life by wearing the masks, … what’s that worth? Is it worth a little inconvenience? I sure hope so.”

The city of Colleyville posted a message on social media Thursday afternoon stating that it will not take any action to enact the face mask order, “nor provide enforcement.”

A poll released this week showed that more than six of 10 North Texans believe that wearing face masks and social distancing should be required until a vaccine is developed and widely available.

The survey by Texas 2036, a nonprofit focused on long term planning for the state, polled residents in 13 North Texas counties in early June.

On Thursday, Tarrant County reported 1,864 available hospital beds and 438 available ventilators. The county’s public health department reported there were 339 patients in hospitals with confirmed cases of coronavirus.

“This is the right next step to take,” Price said. “We need your help. We need you to follow these orders.

“We need you to mask up.”