Face coverings will be required in all Tarrant County businesses, the county judge announced Thursday, mirroring measures taken across the state amid a "massive" spike in COVID-19 infections.
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said the countywide executive order will go into effect at 6 p.m. Friday. The order will be in effect through 6 a.m. Aug. 3 and also applies to outdoor gatherings of 100 people or more.
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"In the last two weeks, we have seen a 52% increase in the number of COVID-positive cases in Tarrant County," Judge Whitley said Thursday. "In that same two week period, we have seen the number of folks in the hospital move from 204 to 342. A 67% increase."
Whitley said the decision was made after speaking with city mayors, hospital officials, and members of the business community. Another stay-at-home order is the last resort, according to Whitley, who added the mask mandate was "best alternative at this time".
Whitley was joined by city mayors from Fort Worth, Arlington, and Burleson at the press conference Thursday. Burleson mayor Ken Shetter said for the first time, the city was having an issue with testing capacity.
"It’s not just the big cities, it’s the big cities and the little cities," Mayor Shetter said. "We all share the same message which is please, for the love of God…put on a mask.”
Fort Worth mayor Betsy Price joined the press conference remotely. Mayor Price has been in self-isolation after being in contact with someone who had tested positive for coronavirus.
"We know masks in the Texas heat as we head into July and August, they’re not comfortable, but you get used to them pretty quick," Price said. "You really have to wear them if we’re going to get our economy back open."
Until Thursday, Price and other city leaders had refrained from making face masks mandatory in city businesses, unlike Dallas and Bexar County officials, and instead have “strongly encouraged” their usage.
The order does not apply to children under the age of 10, people who are eating or drinking and people who have a medical condition and are unable to wear a mask safely.
When asked about the possible penalties for non-compliance, Whitley said the goal was not give citations or arrest people.
"What may happen is you may have an officer or you may have someone come up and ask you to leave the area if you want to continue to not wear a mask," he said.
Businesses can face fines of up to $1,000, according to the order; however, Whitley added cities still have 'ordinance-making authority'.
"So, it would be left up to the cities to determine that if an ordinance is violated, what the fine would be," he clarified Thursday.
At Fort Brewery & Pizza in Fort Worth, general manager Dusty Wood said they were ready to comply. The restaurant switched to curbside only in March but has since reopened their dining room with spaced out tables. Workers already wear masks and are screened for temperatures everyday, while customers are free to use hand sanitizer provided by the business.
"We’re going to put up new signs where people are going to have funnel through one direction starting tomorrow. Come in through the main door. Make sure they’re in compliance. We’ll put signs up on all the doors. You have to have a mask when you’re coming in," Wood said. "Ordering disposable masks right now that we’ll either give away or sell for what we paid for to cover our cost for them. That way, make sure everyone is in compliance."
Overall, Wood said he did not foresee issues with compliance.
"We have great customers here, so I don’t think we’ll an issue with it. Just talk to them, look this is way it is. This is the ordinance and we’re going to follow it just like we have to," he told NBC 5.
At EnduraLAB, a strength and endurance gym in Fort Worth, owner and head coach Lee Hargrave said they too were prepared for Friday. When people come to the gym, they will be asked to wear mask.
It will be optional during the actual workout, Hargrave said.
"Two reasons, all of our boxes are socially distanced already," he told NBC 5. "Number two, we don’t anyone to suffer from any kind of respiratory direst during a workout. It’s a safety precaution."
At the press conference Thursday, Whitley was also joined by several doctors. This includes the president of the American Medical Association, Dr. Susan Bailey.
"This needs to be about science and research and not about emotion and politics," Dr. Bailey said. "Early on, we did not realize there were a lot of people walking around that had COVID-19 that were spreading it to others and had no idea they were sick. When we realized that, we changed our recommendations and said you know, it’s best if everyone starts wearing a mask."
Dr. Robert Rogers with the Tarrant County Medical Society said as a medical professional, there has been some frustration when it comes to stressing the importance of masks and social distancing.
"I am not a fear mongering person either but if we don’t respect this process, things can get terrible," Dr. Rogers said. "I guess what frustrates me the most is recently, there seems to be so much willingness to say science doesn’t exist. Science doesn’t matter. Not trusting people who have spent their lives studying and understanding these processes, that is actually quite frustrating, but that’s the life we’re in right now. Our job is to continue to present scientifically sound, reasonable data to convince all of us to do the right thing."
Tarrant County reported 517 new infections Thursday. Thursday's cases in Tarrant County brings the total number of cases since March to 10,363. Over the last seven days, the county has averaged 323 cases per day.
State health officials on Wednesday reported a record-high 5,551 new coronavirus cases Wednesday as Gov. Greg Abbott described the situation as a "massive outbreak."
Click here to read the full executive order for masks in Tarrant County or view it in the document viewer below.
*Map locations are approximate, central locations for the city and are not meant to indicate where actual infected people live.
**County totals below include all 32 North Texas counties, not just Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant.