You won’t find a reference in his official biography, but it’s well known in political circles that Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is a seasoned poker player. That was evident Wednesday when he issued a surprise emergency order mandating the use of face masks in all commercial venues starting Monday.

Businesses failing to implement a health and safety policy that includes mandatory face coverings in situations where social distancing is not feasible could face a fine of up to $1,000 for each violation. Wolff said the County will purchase and make available for free 1 million masks so local businesses can comply with the order without turning away customers or having to purchase masks.

The order on its face was a direct challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott’s May 5 emergency order that blocked cities and counties from imposing civil or criminal penalties for violators who ignored the City and County’s April mask order. In the face of unsettling spikes in positive coronavirus cases around the state this month, including Bexar County, Abbott’s office chose this time not to challenge local authority.

A spokesman in the governor’s office gave the Texas Tribune a statement that serves as a model of opacity: “Judge Wolff’s order is not inconsistent with the Governor’s executive order,” John Wittman said. “Our office urges officials and the public to adopt and follow the health protocols for businesses established by doctors” that are available online.

Abbott himself seemed to be playing a cat-and-mouse game with his own comments in an interview last week with KWTX-TV in Waco. He said Wolff had “finally figured” out what local authorities can do in mandating mask usage without violating the statewide order: “Government cannot require individuals to wear masks. However, pursuant to my plan, local governments can require stores and businesses to require masks.”

If Abbott intended all along to defer to local authorities, why is he clarifying that more than 45 days after his order in a small-market television interview?

Gov. Greg Abbott. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

I have a simpler explanation for what transpired: Wolff went all-in and Abbott folded. The governor knows a continuing spike in positive cases coupled with any renewed order blocking mandatory mask usage could have serious public health and political consequences.

I sympathize with Abbott’s political position in reopening the state’s economy and its public life because he is being squeezed by a highly polarized electorate. In his efforts to address concerns all along the political spectrum he inevitably falls short. Abbott wears a mask in public appearances, yet he’s resisted calls by mayors and county judges to make such usage mandatory.

“We cannot rely on the State to do what needs to be done,” said Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales, who, along with San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, joined Wolff at his Wednesday news conference.

Abbott is pushed hard by the extreme right in the Republican Party, whose members equate mask use as another instance of government infringement on civil liberties. Those who make such claims have nothing to say about the greater good of the community or the growing consensus among experts that masks help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The same civil liberty claims were made after laws were passed making seat belt and child seat usage mandatory, too.

Wolff was not acting simply to assert local authority.

“The numbers are getting awfully high and it is putting stress on our hospital system,” Wolff said. “All indicators are going in the wrong direction, but particularly alarming is the number of people in the hospital.”

There were 383 positive coronavirus cases in the final week of May as San Antonio and Bexar County continued to reopen. There were 1,951 cases last week. Hospitalizations had soared to 336 as of Saturday.

“We are unable to see when the surge will slow down,” Nirenberg said at a Friday press conference. “The best thing you can give Dad this weekend is to continue to work on physical distancing and call him. Don’t host a get-together in the home.”

My primary outing these days is to H-E-B. More than 40,000 people signed an online petition last week urging the company to restore its mandatory mask requirement for entry. That would have been hard to do without Wolff’s order, but now it will happen. Customers should be wearing masks out of respect for the company’s workers. H-E-B’s selfless actions from the start of the pandemic have inevitably exposed many of its store employees to a higher risk of infection, despite extensive measures taken to protect them and shoppers.

I don’t know how many H-E-B employees have tested positive to date, but I do know the company has paid a price for staying open and making sure people can obtain essential supplies and groceries. For customers to enter an H-E-B, or any other retail outlet, without a mask strikes me as incredibly selfish and indifferent to the well-being of the very people making our lives far more manageable through the shutdown.

Wolff’s order is an essential act of leadership that can help address the sudden rise in the spread of the virus. A pandemic is no time for elected officials at any level of government to pander to the public or their political base. Tough decisions will be seen later in a much more favorable light, even if some people in the moment resent being told what to do.

It’s in our shared interest as a city of 1.5 million people to set aside individual preferences and act in the common good, and right now that means wearing a face mask when coming into contact with other members of the public. Unlike the virus, it won’t kill you.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.