One day after San Antonio hit an all-time high in new daily coronavirus cases, it appears residents are complying with a new face mask mandate. 

As of noon on Monday, there had been no complaints or suspected violations of a new face-covering order, according to a Bexar County spokeswoman. But sheriff’s deputies were on the lookout, she said.

On June 17, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued an executive order that mandates face coverings for the general public and directs all commercial entities to require employees and customers to wear them in situations where social distancing is not feasible. Failure to implement the policy could result in a fine up to $1,000. Mayor Ron Nirenberg instituted a similar order for the City of San Antonio.

Across the city, “no mask, no service” signs went up on storefront doors that were previously closed altogether during stay-home orders, and fabric face coverings in a rainbow of colors and styles became the new norm in many public places.

As the number of local cases and hospitalizations have surged, San Antonians no longer have the option to decide whether to follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and wear masks in public settings to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The order came after three months of on-again, off-again mandates that began in March when Gov. Greg Abbott said local officials have the authority to implement their own stricter standards when it comes to precautions. On April 8, Nirenberg issued an advisory recommending the use of face masks.

On April 20, the mayor and county judge made masks mandatory, but seven days later Abbott said that while “individuals are encouraged” to wear masks, local jurisdictions could not impose penalties for failure to wear masks. An April 30 order from the city and county again required mask-wearing, but no fine was attached.

Later orders in May and early June “strongly encouraged” the use of face masks as Abbott proceeded with the second phase of his plans to reopen the state.

On June 2, H-E-B announced that it was no longer requiring shoppers to wear masks inside its stores, citing a lack of local government rules making it impossible to enforce. That move led to thousands signing a petition requesting the grocer to require masks.

Following a June 12 order by Abbott that gave power back to local jurisdictions, Wolff announced on June 17 his latest order that required businesses to demand its employees and customers wear masks, or face a fine, starting Monday.

H-E-B officials immediately made their own announcement stating that customers would be required to wear face coverings in all its stores.

At a press conference Monday, Abbott pleaded with Texans to wear masks as the number of positive cases in Texas doubled in the past month. But he said he would not require it.

“Our goal is to keep businesses open to keep society engaged, and one of the most effective tools that we can do that is about people wearing masks,” he said. “This is not going to be a permanent assignment. Hopefully, it will be a temporary requirement, one that will get us to that next level.”

Local bar owner Jody Newman said Monday she hoped everyone encourages their friends and family “to mask up … and support local by wearing a mask.”

“This way punitive action isn’t taken against businesses that are already struggling to survive,” said Newman, owner of The Friendly Spot in the Southtown neighborhood and a mentor to other small business owners.

Wolff said the County would purchase and make available for free 1 million masks so local businesses can comply with the order without turning away customers who show up without a face covering or having to purchase masks. The County also provides a poster about the mandate for businesses to display.

San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez told chamber members the mask mandate was necessary because the city could not risk another economic shutdown.

“It is, therefore, paramount for us to get San Antonians back to work and our economy back on track; however, we must ensure we do it in ways that keep our colleagues, employees, and customers safe. Our actions must drive consumer confidence,” he said in a statement. 

With mask-wearing a growing trend since the pandemic outbreak in the U.S. began in February, local shop owner Maggie Ibarra-Jimenez foresaw the demand and has been sewing and selling face coverings through her store, Maddie Mac Boutique, since March.

Ordinarily, the store cycles through seasonal inventory, Ibarra-Jimenez said, so that by now, Fiesta fashions would have given way to hair bows in school colors to get children ready for back-to-school time.

Instead, she is making masks from a warehouse full of fabric she purchased in the late ‘90s and selling the selection of colorful masks curbside at her Northside shop. Masks range in price from $10 to $15. 

Over the weekend, business grew by 70 percent, she said, after a lull in late May. Custom mask requests are also coming in.

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the nonprofit San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind has made over 7,000 masks, many for the military, and has built up its capacity to make 1,500 a week, said President and CEO Mike Gilliam. The Lighthouse is the largest sewing operation in the state.

Face masks sewn by the Lighhouse for the Blind are sold at the retail store at 111 East Nakoma St. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Early on in the crisis, the organization supported local luggage maker Jon Hart Designs and Dixie Flag Company in their efforts to reconfigure manufacturing processes to sew masks.

Together, all three manufacturers have produced and sold about 25,000 masks for San Antonio customers, Gilliam said, which might explain why sales did not jump following Wolff’s latest executive order.

But “we’re going to be watching it closely,” he said.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.