McLennan County strongly recommends businesses instruct customers to wear masks, but commissioners voted not to back up the recommendation with fines the way several local cities are.

As the COVID-19 situation grows worse locally, with 162 new cases and a ninth death in McLennan County reported Tuesday, county commissioners stopped short of ordering the wearing of masks in public places. Instead, they passed an order stating “it is strongly recommended that every commercial entity” come up with a health and safety policy that includes a mask requirement for employees and visitors.

The vote was unanimous, with County Judge Scott Felton and Commissioner Patricia Miller joining commissioners Kelly Snell, Will Jones and Ben Perry. Snell, Jones and Perry have been vocal in opposing any action that would impose enforcement responsibilities or punishment on business.

The order passed Tuesday is similar to one Bell County commissioners approved Monday. But it includes a provision that McLennan County commissioners “will be forced to consider mandatory requirements” if the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to rise. Miller asked that the stipulation be included in the order.

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver quickly drew a distinction between the commissioners’ vote and steps taken by Waco, Woodway, Hewitt and Mart that require public places, including restaurants and retailers, to post notice of and enforce the wearing of masks in their establishments.

Violators face daily fines of up to $1,000, according to the cities’ orders.

“Our orders remain in place. I just don’t want there to be any confusion about that,” Deaver said. “I think from a public health standpoint it would have been preferable for them to issue a countywide order. It would have been easier for the public to understand what’s going on as the virus doesn’t know the difference between Waco and Bellmead.”

Deaver said commissioners have distinct issues to address and constituents to serve, and he would not presume to tell the court how to vote. But he said he hopes other communities in the county “come alongside” Waco, Hewitt, Woodway and Mart in requiring the wearing of masks.

The county’s order also specifies that it has no effect on cities in the county enacting or continuing their own mask requirements.

“I don’t like wearing a mask either, but these are unprecedented times,” Deaver said. “The 162 new cases … that may include a backlog, but that’s a lot of cases regardless. Thirty people in the hospital is concerning.”

Other cities

Officials representing the cities of Robinson, McGregor, West and Bellmead said this week they would follow McLennan County’s lead in addressing the wearing of masks.

Robinson City Manager Craig Lemin said Tuesday he emailed news of the commissioners’ vote and the day’s COVID-19 tally to Mayor Bert Echterling. Lemin said the issue could appear on next week’s city council agenda.

“I think there is still concern over putting business in that (enforcement) situation,” Lemin said. “More and more nationally we’re hearing about customers refusing to wear masks or assaulting employees.”

Echterling placed the blame at the feet of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

“We’re in a hard spot mainly, I believe, because the governor is not taking a tough enough stance,” Echterling said. “He’s trying to play both sides of the field. He’s not forcing masks on the general public, and I’m not going to be the one imposing a fine on business. It’s not the duty of business to enforce the law. They don’t write tickets for parking in a handicap spot.”

Abbott last week issued an executive order that recommends people wear face masks in public, but has previously said no local government could issue a civil or criminal penalty to any individual one not wearing a mask.

Lemin said the city of San Antonio effectively circumvented the rule against fining individuals by shifting enforcement to business, and that approach has been incorporated into decisions by the Texas Governor’s Office.

Felton said Tuesday’s COVID-19 numbers in McLennan County are “shocking,” and the county will continue to monitor the pandemic.

He said the order he and the commissioners approved gives cities in the county “a little latitude” in tailoring their directives to people and business they know.

Snell said the jump in COVID-19 cases is troubling but not unexpected, and not necessarily preventable by masks.

“A lot of this is coming from family contact, when you’re not going to be wearing a mask anyway,” he said in an interview. “We still have people interacting. The virus may just have to run its course before stopping.”

Regardless, Snell said he thinks business establishments need a break.

“Every business in McLennan County has been affected by this: hours of operation, customer counts, twice as much disinfecting, temperature testing at times, and now placing a guard at the front door, and possibly incurring a $1,000 a day fine. I won’t support penalizing our businesses,” he said.

Besides, the commercial establishments he visits in Robinson already have signs posted instructing patrons to wear masks, Snell said.

H-E-B

On a related note, grocery giant H-E-B announced it will require the wearing of masks in all stores statewide starting Wednesday.

“The CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), state of Texas, and local health officials strongly urge the use of masks or facial coverings in public spaces as a proven way to slow the spread of the coronavirus,” an H-E-B press release states. “Many COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic and as Texans Helping Texans, we wear masks to keep each other and our families safe. Social distancing, wearing masks, proper hand washing and sanitization are all things we do to help keep Texans healthy.”

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