AUSTIN, Texas - Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide face covering requirement on Thursday as the coronavirus outbreak continued to worsen in Texas.
"Governor Greg Abbott today issued an Executive Order requiring all Texans to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth in public spaces in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases, with few exceptions," the order read.
Abbott's order goes into effect 12:01 p.m. Friday and comes after weeks of resistance to instituting a statewide mandate. He had allowed cities or counties to require businesses to require masks.
“COVID-19 is not going away, in fact it’s getting worse. Now more than ever, action by everyone is needed until treatments are available for COVID-19,” Abbott said in a video released by his office. “We must do more to slow the spread without locking Texas back down.”
Exceptions include: anyone 10 or younger, people with health conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask, someone eating or drinking, someone doing outdoor activities or swimming.
People who are voting or working a polling site and people attending religious services are not mandated to wear a mask, but are "strongly encouraged."
A verbal or written warning can be issued for a first-time violator of the face covering requirement. A person’s second violation can result in a fine of up to $250. Local law enforcement can issue warnings and fines, but cannot arrest or jail people.
Abbott's order also allows local officials to restrict certain outdoor gatherings of 10-plus people.
Dallas County set another daily record for coronavirus cases on Thursday, with 708, and county health officials expect to report more than 1,000 on Friday.
That's part of the reason Gov. Abbott made wearing face coverings in public *mandatory for counties with more than 20 cases.
Local officials had been asking for a statewide order for weeks, requests the governor had rebuffed.
The governor now says it’s essential to do this to avoid more lockdowns.
“There’s a lot of things that people don’t want to do, but this benefits everyone,” Maritza Velasco said.
In Dallas’ West End neighborhood Thursday, even while outside, most folks had masks on or close at hand.
“Let’s fight this virus together as one,” Brandon Rainwater said.
Dallas County is one of several across the state that instituted a mask requirement in mid-June.
That came after Gov. Abbott revealed he’d allow a situation in which counties could fine businesses if they don’t require masks. But now, he's decided statewide action must be taken.
Face coverings will be required in Texas, and individuals are on the hook.
“We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast there is little margin for error,” Gov. Abbott said. “If we want to avoid lockdowns, if we want to protect those we care about, we need all Texans to join this effort.”
Science overwhelmingly shows face coverings are effective.
“Medical studies have shown that wearing a face covering slows the spread of COVID-19 and it protects you and your family,” the governor said.
For weeks, the governor has expressed concerns over how local governments might enforce a face covering requirement.
He now compared it to a traffic violation.
“The government mandates that you wear a seatbelt when you are driving and they can impose a fine for that,” he said. “I’m unaware of anyone being put in jail for not wearing a seatbelt, so basically it’s enforced the same way that other safety standards are enforced.“
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Abbott last week shut down bars and clubs in an effort to halt what he called a "massive spread" of the coronavirus. But his face covering order is the clearest sign that Texas is facing a massive challenge slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Texas' case levels continued to skyrocket Wednesday as the state soared past 8,000 new confirmed infections in a single day for the first time. It was also the second deadliest day of the outbreak with 57 new deaths reported, bringing the total confirmed death toll to at least 2,481.
Nearly 7,000 people with COVID-19 are now hospitalized, meaning that Texas is starting July with nearly four times as many patients in hospital beds as on June 1.
Abbott has been under extreme pressure from both Democrats and Republicans on his reopening plans.
Democrats, most notably the leadership of the state's largest cities, have complained Abbott reopened Texas too quickly and have pointed to record numbers of confirmed new cases and hospitalizations.
Conservative lawmakers battered Abbott's early moves to combat the virus, including business and school closures and a stay-at-home order that expired in May.
"The move to mandate facemasks comes far too little, far too late for Governor Abbott," Texas Democratic Party Communications Director Abhi Rahman said. "Texans are still getting sick. Families are still suffering ... All of this could have been prevented if Governor Abbott had listened to experts and medical professionals in the first place."