Harris County, Texas officials may learn the hard way the wisdom of never issuing an order they know will not be obeyed, as the Houston police union signaled it would exercise discretion in enforcing their face mask mandate.
Starting Monday, every resident of the third-largest county in the US will be subject to a fine if they are caught in public without some kind of face covering, county executive Judge Lina Hidalgo announced on Wednesday. The mandate applies to everyone over the age of 10 and will last at least 30 days, and maybe longer.
Hidalgo issues mask order in Harris County https://t.co/JAYGbCUu5c
Hidalgo went even further and said that “acceptable” coverings include a “homemade mask, scarf, bandana or handkerchief” but not N-95 respirators or medical masks, as those are needed by health workers.
“This is about personal responsibility,” she told reporters, adding that while the police will have discretion just as they do in enforcing her stay-at-home orders, there will be a fine of up to $1,000 with the goal of “getting residents to comply.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he would announce a plan on Thursday to distribute 70,000 masks to “vulnerable” residents. That’s a drop in the proverbial bucket for Harris County’s more than 4.7 million residents.
Several hours earlier, the Houston police officers’ union denounced the incoming mask mandate as “idiotic” and possibly unconstitutional.
HPOU response to @LinaHidalgoTX draconian mask order: “Now we want to be very clear, HPOU believes everyone should be wearing a mask in public, in order to protect themselves from the virus and we are encouraging all of our officers to wear a mask. However, we draw the line…” pic.twitter.com/XbphfNYHii
“The last thing any of us need to do is kick our community while they are down,” wrote Lodge 110 President Joe Gamaldi, slamming Hidalgo’s “horrific leadership and echo-chamber decision making” for destroying the bridge between the residents and the police.
Gamaldi reminded officers that they had discretion in enforcing the rule, and noted they were already overstretched by a drastic increase in violent crime – 35 percent more murders and 30 percent more burglaries, specifically.
Hidalgo’s mandate is more drastic than the one imposed last week by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, which only requires the wearing of masks in public “when not social distancing.”
Yet Harris County has had a total of 4,823 cases of Covid-19 and 75 deaths as of Wednesday, while Cuomo’s state had over 251,000 cases and 14,887 deaths in New York City alone. The entire state of Texas had 20,196 registered cases and 517 fatalities.
Even as she handed down the mask mandate, Hidalgo was reportedly moving to close down the 250-bed Covid-19 hospital built at great expense in a Houston park, because it is sitting empty. The project’s price tag was estimated at $60 million, though Harris County taxpayers may be down “only” $4.25 million if and when the federal government reimburses them.
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick brought up the hospital in criticizing Hidalgo for “government overreach,” noting that these kinds of policies feed public anger “and rightfully so.”
On the same day they are moving to close $60M hospital because it wasn’t needed @LinaHidalgoTX orders mandatory masks in Harris Cnty — the ultimate government overreach. These kind of confused government policies fuel public anger — and rightfully so. https://t.co/TLgeG1TVFc
The rift between the judge and the lieutenant-governor is both generational and political. Hidalgo is a self-described progressive Democrat and “proud immigrant” who came to the US as a refugee from Colombia in 2005, and narrowly won the election in 2018. Patrick is a Republican who has attracted media attention for advocating the reopening of the US economy even if that means the elderly, like him – who are most at risk from the virus – may get sick and die.
With coronavirus closures putting over 22 million Americans out of work, there has been growing pressure on state and local officials to at least partially open up the economy. While police in some jurisdictions have refused to implement some of the more draconian measures, there have been cases in others that have attracted national attention.
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