This story has been updated.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday requesting an executive order be issued that would allow local jurisdictions to make face coverings mandatory to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

The request comes after Bexar County reported 697 new coronavirus cases over the last four days, a surge Wolff attributes in part to “fewer and fewer people wearing face coverings,” according to the letter.

“If this trend continues, and I believe it will, we will see an increase in both the burden upon our community and the need for additional resources to combat the COVID-19 crisis,” Wolff wrote. “If we are going to be successful in the reopening of our economy, we need to put in place some mandatory health requirements,” the most important being to wear a face covering.

In an interview with NEWS4SA Friday night, Abbott responded to Wolff’s letter. He described a philosophical difference in viewpoints on government mandates, but an agreement on the value of wearing a mask, washing hands, and distancing until treatment for COVID-19 is available. 

“He believes in government mandates, and I believe in individual responsibility,” Abbott said. “I don’t believe the government should mandate that every person must wear a mask or otherwise face a fine or go to jail. It’s wrong to deprive someone of their liberty just because they’re not wearing a mask during this course of this challenge, and that’s why he and I disagree.”

Abbott said he, Nirenberg, and Wolff have all publicly discussed various strategies like wearing a mask and sanitizing hands.

“We must maintain these safe strategies so that we can contain the spread,” Abbott said.

Bexar County reported 172 new coronavirus cases Friday for a total of 4,021 since the pandemic began. Of those cases, 138 people are currently being treated in local hospitals, a record high for Bexar County. Eighty-four people in Bexar County have died of COVID-19, with two new deaths reported Friday.

While Wolff said he supported Abbott lifting shutdown restrictions throughout Texas starting on May 1, he wrote that he didn’t agree with the governor limiting the authority of local jurisdictions to impose a penalty on individuals who failed to wear a face covering in instances where proper physical distancing could not be maintained.  

“Instead of making face coverings under those circumstances mandatory, you only suggested that people wear one and restricted local jurisdictions from making that determination for themselves,” Wolff wrote.

On April 16, when Bexar County’s coronavirus case count stood at 918, Nirenberg and Wolff both signed addendums to local stay-at-home orders requiring everyone 10 years and older to wear some kind of face covering in public starting April 20 or risk a $1,000 fine. 

One week later, Abbott issued an executive order that superseded any local orders that would have imposed fines for people found violating face-mask mandates. 

On Thursday, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Dawn Emerick warned that as local numbers continue to creep up in a “second wave” of coronavirus infections, residents “have to be diligent in terms of interventions.”

Metro Health issued guidelines on Thursday to protect the community against the spread of the virus that included the recommendation that anyone over age 2 should wear a face covering in public.

Nirenberg said Thursday that while Bexar County was “very aggressive” in implementing safety measures to protect the community against COVID-19 through its stay-at-home order and requiring masks, the gradual loosening of restrictions has given people a “false sense of security” about the risk of contracting the virus. 

Had Abbott not “stripped away” the fine for not wearing masks in Bexar County, it would still be in place, Nirenberg said. “But the Governor was very clear that if there was a backtracking on data [showing the curve flattened], there may have to be actions taken.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.