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Texas: Virus cases spike while local and state officials bicker over face mask mandates

April Simpson, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

Since then, Dallas and several other counties have instituted similar orders.

Early in the pandemic, Texas seemed to avoid the worst of the outbreak. It was among the first states to lift business restrictions May 1 after a statewide lockdown. But Texas became a hotspot after the governor asserted the state's authority to open up in a way that overrode local ordinances and policies, Henson said.

"Texans have already shown that we don't have to choose between jobs and health," Abbott said at a news conference last week. "We can have both."

But there's no balance between safeguarding the economy and public health when the two are intertwined, said Sherri Greenberg, a clinical professor and fellow at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

"You can have a mayor or county judge or governor say, 'We're open,' but if people don't feel safe, we've seen many of them will not partake in the economy," said Greenberg, a former Democratic member of the Texas House of Representatives. "Others, because they're older or may have underlying health conditions may say, 'We're open, but I think I should stay home.'"

The Dallas County mask ordinance illustrates the confusion, and critics say it could leave some small businesses vulnerable to competition from neighbors.

Most of the city of Dallas is in Dallas County. But small parts of the city fall within neighboring counties. So, while people are required to wear masks in Dallas County, they could head next door to Collin County to shop without a mask and stay within city limits.

"There is no coordinated effort," said Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, a Democrat who opposed the county's mask order penalizing businesses. "That's part of the concern. If this is going to happen, then the governor needs to do it and if he's only going to do it in urban counties and buttressing counties, then I understand that."

In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has required business employees and customers to wear masks since April. But the requirement lacks a penalty or enforcement mechanism for consumers, leaving individuals to decide whether to comply.

Navigating the rules has been complicated for small business owners who are "financially in tremendous amount of distress," said Calley of the Small Business Association of Michigan. Some businesses require customers wear masks, while others are lax.

"No matter what they do, they're going to lose customers," said Calley, a Republican and former Michigan lieutenant governor.

But guidelines at the federal level are effective, according to Calley and several small business leaders.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has layers of protections, Calley said. OSHA directs businesses to keep out sick people, sanitize frequently touched surfaces and enable social distancing by limiting occupancy. OSHA considers personal protective equipment, known as PPE, the last line of defense, Calley said.

"To workplace safety regulators, it's definitely not the main thing," Calley said. "In fact, you want to engineer your whole process so you're not asking so much of the mask."

The latest order from several Texas counties that threatens businesses with fines hurts small businesses by putting them in the tough position of having to deny or kick out customers, said Annie Spilman, Texas state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

 

"And that very person can say, 'You've violated my individual liberty,'" Spilman said.

If state and local governments are going to put the burden on small businesses to police people, they also should provide protections, such as immunity for companies that follow OSHA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines or liability protections from frivolous lawsuits, Spilman said.

"If you're not complying with what OSHA asks for, you're going to wind up in trouble no matter what Austin says or Houston says," said Keith Ashmus, founder of mediation and arbitration firm Dispute-Away LLC and past chairman of the National Small Business Association, referring to customers, employees and OSHA.

Most employees working the floor at a half-dozen businesses in the West Village area of Uptown, a popular neighborhood just north of downtown Dallas, didn't oppose the county's latest measure.

"We feel backed by the county," said Huerta, of Buda Juice.

Many stores already require customers to wear masks before they enter. Several had hand sanitizers available. Some clothing stores had masks for bare-faced customers.

But it's unfair for businesses to have to police customers and not hold individuals accountable, said Khai Nguyen, a barista at Sip Stir Coffee House.

"If they're not going to wear a mask in here, they're not going to wear it outside," Nguyen said.

On a recent Friday afternoon, hours after the Dallas County Commissioners Court approved the order that would go into effect at midnight, about a half-dozen solo customers sat scattered throughout the shop plucking away at laptops. None wore masks.

"We're considered essential workers," Nguyen said. "Why should we put our own health on the line when others don't want to follow the rules?"

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