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Coronavirus in Texas

Harris County latest to mandate face masks as criticism mounts that the requirement is "government overreach"

GOP officials called it "tyranny" and "government overreach," taking issue in particular with the $1,000 fine associated with violating the mask requirement.

The streets of downtown Houston during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Harris County residents must cover their faces in public, county Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered Wednesday in a move that was met with swift criticism by GOP officials, who said the government mandate goes too far.

The measure comes as other local officials, such as those in Austin and Dallas, recently implemented similar measures to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends wearing cloth face coverings in areas like grocery stores where social distancing is difficult to achieve.

“We have to use every tool in the toolbox,” Hidalgo said at a press conference. “I know this takes some getting used to, but these are all small yet powerful actions.”

The rules, which the Houston Chronicle first reported, will take effect Monday and last 30 days, Hidalgo said. Residents 10 and older will have to cover their noses and mouths using an acceptable garment, such as a bandana or homemade mask, when outside the home.

“We are not asking people to wear a medical mask or an N95 mask,” Hidalgo said. “You can use an old T-shirt, perhaps. … The idea is just to cover your nose and mouth.”

Violations will be punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called Hidalgo’s order “the ultimate government overreach.”

“These kind of confused government policies fuel public anger — and rightfully so,” Patrick tweeted.

The Houston Police Officers’ Union called the rules “draconian,” adding that it is seeking an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on whether the measure is legally sound.

“Everyone should be wearing a mask in public, I wear 1 everyday,” union president Joe Gamaldi said in a tweet. “But making not wearing 1 punishable by law, and asking our officers to enforce it, will do irreparable damage to our relationship with the community. We are already stretched too thin without having to enforce this.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, warned that Hidalgo’s order could “lead to unjust tyranny.”

“Should guidelines for masks in confined spaces be emphatically promoted? Absolutely,” Crenshaw tweeted. “But we will NEVER support 180 days in jail or $1,000 fine for not wearing a mask.”

A draft of Hidalgo's order had mentioned a punishment of up to 180 days in jail — which is also listed online as a potential punishment for violating myriad aspects of the county's stay-at-home order. But a spokeswoman for the judge said that not wearing a face covering could only lead to a $1,000 fine, not jail time.

Asked about the pushback, Hidalgo said, “There's always going to be a minority voice. … People are entitled to their opinions.

“This is not a police state,” she said. “But we needed to make clear it’s not a recommendation, it’s something we have to do for sake of our safety, our lives and our economy.”

Later on Wednesday, Paxton waded into the controversy, instructing police officers to "use discretion" as they carry out Hidalgo's order.

"While health and safety guidelines are important to slow the spread of COVID-19, officers should use discretion as they carry out the functions of their sworn duty and focus on dangerous criminals who pose a serious risk to their community," Paxton said in a press release.

Officials in nearby Montgomery County said they would not be issuing a mask order.

“I will not issue an order mandating the wearing of face coverings or mask in public places anywhere in Montgomery County. We will support your right to decide for yourself,” Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough said, according to Fox 26 Houston.

Similarly, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry called the requirement unconstitutional. “While we encourage that you consider these recommendations for your own safety and the safety of others around you, I will not be mandating it because I believe it is unconstitutional to do so,” he said in a Facebook post.

The order will make exceptions for people with health conditions that would be exacerbated by wearing a covering and will make allowances for people driving, eating and exercising alone, Hidalgo said.

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