Alpine passes limited mask ordinance

ALPINE — On Tuesday evening, Alpine became one of the latest Texas cities to consider using the “Texas mask loophole” to require masks in businesses.

At the end of a virtual city council meeting on Tuesday, though, Alpine scaled back their proposed ordinance — instead requiring that businesses post a sign saying whether masks are mandatory or not.

The Texas mask loophole involves Governor Greg Abbott’s shifting directives on how cities and counties should respond to the coronavirus pandemic. At the start of the crisis, he encouraged local cities and counties to develop their own responses and safety guidelines.

As he started reopening the state, though, he clarified that his executive orders superseded local ones. Those new rules overturned a range of local safety ordinances, from the short-term rental ban in Marfa to face-covering requirements in Presidio and Houston.

As the crisis has worsened in Texas, Abbott has continued with his phased reopening plans and has proven unwilling to impose any further statewide safety ordinances. Last week, though, Nelson Wolff, the county judge in Bexar County in San Antonio, tried a loophole.

Rather than requiring face coverings, Wolff required that businesses require their customers to wear face coverings. And to the surprise of many observers, Abbott was fine with those rules, describing them as “authorized” and part of the “plan in place all along.”

Countless cities have since responded by making use of that loophole, including big cities like Houston and small towns like Marfa, which passed a nearly identical ordinance last week. After The Big Bend Sentinel went to press on Wednesday, the City of Presidio was expected to consider such an ordinance as well.

Such an ordinance was also on the agenda in Alpine, when the city council met for a virtual emergency session on Tuesday evening.

Alpine city leaders started the meeting by considering the challenges of such a rule. There would be possible “pushback” and “political implications.” The city could get sued. And further complicating matters, the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office had said on social media as far back as April that they wouldn’t enforce any mask ordinances.

Then, of course, there were the positives. “There’s a growing body of evidence that masks are key to halting the spread,” said City Manager Erik Zimmer. He pointed to a study out of Missouri, where a mask-wearing barber had not infected customers despite later testing positive for coronavirus.

City leaders were uncomfortable with the fact that the proposed ordinance would fine violating businesses. “My only problem is penalizing the business,” said Mayor Andy Ramos, “And not penalizing the person who is not wearing [a mask].”

Unfortunately for Ramos, Abbott has made it clear that Texas citizens can’t be fined or penalized for violating mask ordinances. And while Abbott could eventually change his opinion on that as well, imposing threats of fines on businesses — and not customers — is part of the loophole, for now at least.

Ramos also noted that mask requirements had led to physical altercations in other places, citing videos he had seen online. “We can’t have a mask patrol,” he said.

“I don’t see what’s so hard about wearing a mask,” he added. “I really don’t. It’s like putting a shirt on.”

Councilmember Rick Stephens proposed a compromise that would “let the individual make their own decision.” Rather than an across-the-board requirement for masks at businesses, he instead proposed that businesses be required to post one of two signs, which the city would provide for free.

One sign would say that customers were required to wear masks. Another would say that masks — though not required in the business — did help reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Not all city officials were thrilled with the weaker rules. “I liked how it was written in the first place,” Councilmember Maria Curry said. Councilmember Betty Fitzgerald agreed.

In the end, though, city leaders did adopt Stephens’ proposed change to the ordinance. And with those changes, the ordinance passed.

Plenty of residents tuned in to watch the city council meeting. But perhaps fearing that the meeting could descend into a bickering match, city leaders required anyone interested in making a public comment to send an email to the city ahead of the meeting.

Only one person — Amy Hardy — a co-owner of the Crystal Bar — signed up. She used the comment period to express her displeasure at mask requirements.

“We should be able to let the individuals make their own choice,” she said. “I do not feel right making my customers put on something that they’re not comfortable wearing.”

Mayor Ramos acknowledged the issues of personal liberty and responsibility. “To each their own,” he said. But those issues are more complicated when it comes to communicable diseases, where “one person could infect a bunch of people.”