Following a tense debate over a mandate to require all Dallas County residents to wear face coverings in public, county commissioners voted to partially scale back that order and reopen craft stores so that residents would have access to materials to make their own masks.
The 3-2 vote also changes the mandate to clarify that residents who do not follow mandate will not be fined or face harsh penalties from law enforcement. However, stores will still be allowed to refuse service for those not wearing a face covering.
The mandate was announced Thursday by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who said the decision is an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. People visiting essential businesses, working in essential businesses or those riding public transportation will be required to have a mask or piece of cloth -- such as a homemade mask, scarf, bandanna or handkerchief -- covering their mouth and nose. The order also applies to children 2 years of age and older.
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The face coverings would not be required for those going for a walk or jog in their neighborhood or anyone driving in their car on their way to an essential business.
"We must limit all unnecessary trips. Each trip carries some risk to you, your family and the public at large. To better protect you and our front line heroes, we are requiring all visitors to essential businesses, essential business employees and riders of public transportation to wear a cloth covering starting Saturday," Jenkins said in a prepared statement Thursday. "There are a lot more cars on the roads this week. That's a concern. If a few of us slack off on making good personal responsibility decisions we not only put public health at risk but are prolonging this for ourselves and everyone."
Dallas County commissioners called an emergency meeting on Friday morning, saying Jenkins didn’t properly notify them or discuss the matter before issuing the order.
The issues seem to stem from what other commissioners are calling a lack of communication and that they weren’t notified of the mandate ahead of time. Jenkins said two emails were sent on Wednesday afternoon and evening, complying with the commissioners' request of sending notices at least three hours in advance.
The meeting was mostly virtual but tensions remained high as commissioners peppered Jenkins with questions and clarifications on what the mandate entails.
"Judge Jenkins, if we had had this kind of dialogue and it would’ve been real clear and concise, then we would not be here talking about these issues," said said commissioner John Wiley Price. "These issues have not been vetted, at least not with me and I think with the majority of the court.”
Commissioners expressed concerns over the punishments outlined in the original mandate if it wasn't followed, with fines of up to $1,000 or jail time.
Jenkins told commissioners Friday that he spoke with businesses, doctors and law enforcement about the mandate beforehand. But during the meeting, commissioners fired back saying they were told the sheriff’s office wasn’t aware.
"That was not described in your press conference," said commissioner J.J. Koch. "And I was extremely disappointed to know that you would not address the chiefs of police here in Dallas County. Richardson, Garland hasn't heard from you."
"Respectfully, it was addressed in both instances. It was addressed in the press conference," Jenkins replied. "I went over this in a call 12 p.m. with law enforcement before the order was issued…Did I call every police chief personally and talk to them about it? No, I didn't."
The penalty in Dallas County's mandate is consistent with those in other Texas cities and counties requiring facial coverings, including Travis County (Austin) and the city of Laredo where residents of both were warned of a possible $1,000 fine for non-compliance.
“When you talk about issuing an order, it sends a different message, judge. If you would’ve issued this six weeks ago or five weeks ago and it would’ve been part of the equation, that’s fine. But here we are,” said Price. “All of the sudden, we come up with a knee-jerk reaction, because everybody else is doing this."
Doctors and business leaders spoke up in support of wearing coverings. A doctor even showed a bandana that he said he has been wearing to the grocery store. He added that the mandate is based on what other cities and states are doing.
Gary Huddleston, an industry consultant for the Texas Retailers Association, was also brought on to speak about their efforts to distribute face coverings to employees and their observation of customers wearing masks as well.
Still, commissioners voiced their worries about mixed messaging and the concern about the effectiveness of homemade cloth face coverings like bandannas.
“Remember when you’re covering your mouth at the big box store, you only get a small amount of protection but the people around you are not getting your breath on them. And if you’re asymptomatic then you can be a carrier,” Jenkins replied. “And remember if you’re in the big box store, and others are covering their mouth, that is your protection.“
Friday's meeting follows moments of tension among the commissioners court, with county commissioners voting last week to partially limit Jenkins' power because they said they weren't being consulted in his decision making.
The order goes into effect 12 a.m. Saturday.