Gov. Greg Abbott issued a nearly statewide mask mandate Thursday as Texas scrambles to get its coronavirus surge under control.
The order requires Texans living in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while inside a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. But it provides several exceptions, including children who are younger than 10 years old, people who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, people who are eating or drinking and people who are exercising outdoors.
The mask order goes into effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday.
The order represents a remarkable turnaround for Abbott, who has long resisted such a statewide mask requirement, even as the coronavirus situation has gotten worse than ever over the past couple weeks in Texas. When he began reopening Texas businesses in May, Abbott prohibited local governments from punishing people who do not wear mask. As cases began to rise earlier this month, he clarified that cities and counties could order businesses to mandate customers wear masks.
In recent days, though, Abbott had held firm against going further than that, saying he did not want to impose a statewide requirement that may burden parts of the state that are not as badly affected by the outbreak.
Abbott on Thursday also banned certain outdoor gatherings of over 10 people unless local officials approve. He had previously set the threshold at over 100 people. The new prohibition also goes into effect Friday afternoon.
Abbott’s latest moves come ahead of Fourth of July weekend, which has raised concerns about larger-than-usual crowds gathering while the state grapples with the virus spike.
Abbott also released a video message Thursday, saying the latest coronavirus numbers in the state “reveal a very stark reality.”
“COVID-19 is not going away,” he said. “In fact, it’s getting worse. Now, more than ever, action by everyone is needed until treatments are available for COVID-19.”
In the video, Abbott reiterated his resistance to returning the state to the roughly monthlong stay-at-home order he issued in April. He said Texans “must do more to slow the spread without locking Texas back down.” He also said his latest announcement is “not a stay-at-home order” but “just recognizes reality: If you don’t go out, you are less likely to encounter someone who has COVID-19.”
“We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast there is little margin for error,” Abbott said.
Abbott’s announcement came a day after the number of new daily cases in Texas, as well as hospitalizations, reached new highs again. There were 8,076 new cases Wednesday, over 1,000 cases more than the record that was set the prior day.
Hospitalizations hit 6,904, the third straight day setting a new record. The state says 12,894 beds are still available, as well as 1,322 ICU beds.
Abbott has been particularly worried about the positivity rate, or the share of tests that come back positive. That rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has jumped above its previous high of about 14 percent in recent days, ticking down to 13.58 percent on Tuesday. That is still above the 10 percent threshold that Abbott has long said would be cause for alarm amid the reopening process.
First-time offenders of Abbott’s order will receive a written or verbal warning. Those who violate the order a second time will receive a fine of up to $250. Every subsequent violation is punishable also by a fine of up to $250. The order specifies that no one can get jail time for a violation.
After listing several exceptions to the mask requirement, Abbott’s order specifies at least one group of people is not exempted from the order: “any person attending a protest or demonstration” with over 10 people who cannot socially distance. Like other states, Texas has seen massive protests following George Floyd’s death.
Democrats and local officials had been demanding Abbott institute such a requirement, and the state party said his new order was “far too little, far too late.”
“This is unacceptable,” party spokesman Abhi Rahman said in a statement. “Governor Abbott continues to lead from behind rather than implementing preventive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”
When asked at a Thursday afternoon press conference about Abbott’s new order, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg simply said “It’s about time.”
“We will count this one as a good step that the governor is taking,” Nirenberg added.
This is Abbott’s latest set of moves aimed at trying to get the virus surge under control in Texas. Six days ago, he ordered bars closed and reduced the permitted restaurant occupancy to 50 percent, among other things.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.