Wave of new mask orders brings added precautions, confusion

TRI-COUNTY — With Governor Greg Abbott capitulating on his stance towards COVID-19 regulations amid an influx of cases across the state of Texas, the door has been opened for local governments to use state-sanctioned loopholes to enforce mask wearing. It’s already a confusing situation — but for towns in the tri-county, an amalgamation of city and county orders has made such issues even more complicated.

Marfa, Presidio city and Alpine all passed mask ordinances last month. All of them made slightly different requirements, from Marfa’s (which effectively required masks at businesses) to Alpine’s (which required stores to post signs stating whether or not masks were required).

Then, this week, Presidio and Brewster counties both passed countywide ordinances in line with Marfa’s. And while Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara clarified that her orders did not supersede local ones, Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano made no such exemptions. As a result of all this, the various rules that tri-county residents are living under have changed week-by-week, or even day-by-day.

Last Wednesday, the city council for Presidio met with the intention of making a mask ordinance geared mostly towards businesses and the customers interacting with them. The regulations that they came up with include mandatory wearing of masks for employees at commercial entities, mandatory wearing of masks for customers at commercial entities as well as a reiteration of CDC-recommended distancing guidelines.

The ordinance was passed unanimously with the exception of Irvin Olivas, who abstained. Olivas was concerned that enforcing masks at his gym would hurt his particular business more than most, which could have created a conflict of interest, according to Presidio Mayor John Ferguson. The city ordinance says businesses can apply for waivers if they feel they are necessary but will still have to put up a sign encouraging customers to wear masks.

In an interview, Mayor Ferguson said a mask exception waiver would likely be granted for Olivas given the context of his situation. All mask exemption waivers will be reviewed by Presidio City Administrator Joe Portillo, City EMS Director Malynda Richardson and Presidio Chief of Police José “Joe” Cabezuela.

On Monday, Presidio County finalized its own version of a county-wide mask ordinance. This ordinance is similar to Presidio’s city ordinance in the sense that all citizens are required to wear masks when working or visiting commercial entities.

The county order, though, does present a couple of distinct differences that include a fine of $1,000 for business owners who violate the mask ordinance, as well as not giving businesses the option for mask exemption waivers.

The original county ordinance was interpreted to supersede the already existing city ordinances in Marfa and Presidio, but with the release of an amended county ordinance on Tuesday, Judge Guevara clarified that is not the case.

Given the existence of two enforceable mask ordinances with non-aligning philosophies on things such as the exemption waiver, it remains to be seen how authorities will handle businesses who may only choose to abide by the Presidio city ordinance rather than the Presidio County one. Or for that matter, how Governor Greg Abbott will respond not only to growing confusion around his directives, but to growing case counts.

When asked about the discrepancy between Presidio County and the city, Mayor Ferguson stated that he would prefer that the City of Presidio proceed according to the already established city ordinance. The order is “reasonable and prudent” for the city, he said — stressing that city officials would prefer to have waivers as an option and would seriously consider whether to give one out in each particular case.

Alpine, meanwhile, found itself in a similar position this week. Last week, as The Big Bend Sentinel reported, the city adopted an emergency ordinance requiring not that businesses require customers to wear masks, but that they post signs saying whether or not masks are required.

Then, on Monday, Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano adopted Marfa-like rules for the whole county, which did effectively require masks. Unlike Marfa, that put Alpine in a position where county rules were actually stricter than citywide ones.

At an emergency meeting on Tuesday night, Rod Ponton, city attorney for Alpine, said that Brewster County’s rules would supersede local ones. Unlike in Presidio County, Cano did not explicitly say that his rules did not supersede local ones. “By being a county, [Brewster] incorporates everything in the city,” he said.

In the end, Alpine incorporated Brewster County’s revised mask rules into its own ordinance. “City council is really clear that Judge Cano’s order holds,” said Chris Ruggia, director of tourism for the city.

Alpine is also planning education and outreach efforts to help businesses understand not only what’s required for them, but how they can keep area residents safe, Ruggia said. At press time on Wednesday, city leaders were getting ready to meet and discuss those efforts.

Stephen Paulsen contributed to this report.