Republican Greg Abbott had previously said government could not order people to wear masks
The governor of Texas has ordered that face coverings must be worn in public across most of the state, in a dramatic ramping up of efforts to control a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
The move marks a major reversal for Republican Greg Abbott, who had pushed Texas’s aggressive reopening of the state economy in May, and had previously said the government could not order individuals to wear masks. His prior virus-related orders had undercut efforts by local governments to enforce mask requirements.
But faced with rising numbers of newly confirmed cases of the Covid-19 virus and a wave of hospitalizations, Abbott changed course with Thursday’s mask order. It requires “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”.
“We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast, there is little margin for error,” Abbott said.
Texas reported 7,915 newly confirmed cases, a slight dip after passing the 8,000 mark for the first time on Wednesday. The 7,382 hospitalizations means the state has more than quadrupled its numbers in that category since the end of May.
The mask order takes effect Friday. Mask order violators can be fined up to $250. There are exceptions for people who have a medical condition or disability, who are exercising outdoors, or who are participating in a religious service or voting. Texas this week began its monthlong early voting period for its primary elections.
Mask orders have become a source of controversy in Texas and elsewhere in the US. Public health experts unanimously agree that masks help slow the spread of Covid-19, but many Americans argue they impair individual freedom.
Abbott also gave mayors and county authorities the ability to ban outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people.
In his order and a statement, Abbott said wearing a mask was a proven method to slowing down the virus’ spread and said if Texans comply “more extreme measures may be avoided”.
Abbott has said he doesn’t want to roll back his previous orders to reopen the economy. But last week he moved to re-close bars and limit dine-in capacity in restaurants to 50%.
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 the record numbers of confirmed new cases and hospitalizations. Conservative lawmakers, meanwhile, have battered Abbott’s early moves to combat the virus, including business, school and childcare closures and a stay-at-home order that expired in May.
The move was applauded by the Texas Medical Association. “There is no question about it, face masks reduce the spread of Covid-19,” said the association’s president, Dr Diana L Fite.
Texas’s order comes as the virus continues to surge around the country, with cases rising significantly in more than 40 states, particularly in the south and west. On Thursday, Georgia added nearly 3,500 new cases, its largest single-day increase yet. Florida, meanwhile, reported 10,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases for the first time.