Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday local governments can require businesses to mandate customers and workers to wear face masks after one the state's most populous counties ordered such a measure amid record numbers of new cases of coronavirus and hospitalizations.
The order for Bexar County, which includes the San Antonio area, takes effect Monday and businesses could face fines up to $1,000 for failing to comply.
Abbott, a Republican, has refused to order individuals to wear masks as part of his statewide orders, but said other local governments are free to do the same as Bexar County. The mayor of Austin said his city would.
In an interview with Waco television station KWTX, Abbott said his previous state order would have allowed the move long ago, adding county officials had "finally figured that out."
"We want to make sure individual liberty is not infringed upon by government and hence government cannot require individuals to wear masks," Abbott said.
"Local governments can require stores and businesses to require masks …. They've always had the opportunity and ability. Just like they can require people to wear shoes and shirts, these businesses can require people to wear face masks," Abbott said.
Abbott said under his statewide orders, no person can be jailed for not wearing a mask and local governments can't force individuals wear one.
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Small business advocates criticized the Bexar County measure as turning them into mask "police" and exposing them to legal liability if they don't.
"Texas business owners are deeply concerned about the possibility of trial lawyers exploiting the pandemic for financial gain," said Annie Spilman, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
In May, Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton lashed out at the cities of San Antonio, Dallas and Austin over what he called "unlawful" local orders that are tougher than restrictions prescribed by Abbott, and threatened lawsuits if the cities don't back off.
But Texas has seen a spike in new cases and hospitalizations since then, and on Tuesday, nine mayors of some of Texas' largest cities sent a bipartisan letter asking for the authority to enforce the use of face coverings.
Texas reported new record highs of new cases and hospitalizations Wednesday. The state passed the 3,000 mark in new cases for the first time with 3,129. The 2,793 COVID-19 patients in the hospital is an 85% increase since Memorial Day.
Abbott has insisted Texas hospitals can handle the rising numbers of patients and he has routinely touted available hospital space and intensive care beds as proof hospitals won't be overwhelmed.
On Wednesday, Texas health officials reported 13,815 hospital beds available overall with 1,473 ICU beds.
Abbott also said this week Texans have become lax in their personal social distancing efforts and other measures, such as wearing masks, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolfe issued his order the following morning. He was joined at a news conference by San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg to say they are concerned younger people will get infected with COVID-19 and take the virus home to older family members. People younger than 40 are showing the most infections in the area, the mayor said.
"What we are doing here is to protect the life and safety of the San Antonio community," Nirenberg said.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued a new health and safety order for businesses Wednesday, including a direct order to wear masks, saying Abbott's blessing of the Bexar County plan "has now given us a path and we will act consistent with his statement."
Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrman said Wednesday she has recovered from COVID-19 but her symptoms while battling the disease were "quite severe."
Lehrman is one of nine judges on the state's highest court for civil law. She announced May 21 that she and her husband Greg tested positive for the coronavirus despite being diligent about following social distancing guidelines. She is the highest-ranking state official in Texas known to test positive for the virus.
"Greg & I are so thankful for the many kind thoughts and prayers that undoubtedly helped us through this challenging time. Although my symptoms became quite severe, we are both fine with negative test results. Now, on to donating our plasma to help others!" Lehrman tweeted in announcing recovery.