Local judges hold off on seeking exemption from governor’s statewide mask order

TEXAS — Governor Greg Abbott last Thursday released a new executive order that requires Texans to wear face coverings, in a stark reversal from his previous stance against mask requirements. Texans are expected to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth when inside a commercial entity, building or space open to the public, and in outdoor spaces where maintaining six feet of distance from others is not possible.

But the ordinance comes with a lot of caveats. There is a long list of situations where Texans do not have to wear masks, and one carve out that allows some Texas counties to be exempt from the mask order entirely.

The Texas Department of Emergency Management has two criteria for county judges to meet before their county can be exempt from the order: There must be 20 or fewer active COVID-19 cases, and the judge must submit a form affirming they wish to opt out.

Sixty-six of Texas’ 254 counties have already submitted an attestation form and qualified to be exempt from the mask order. Those include nearby Hudspeth County, home of Sierra Blanca, Pecos County, home of Fort Stockton, and Ward County, home of Monahans.

While the Texas Department of State Health Services reports 111 active cases in Brewster County at press time (making them not eligible for the exemption at this time), Jeff Davis County only has four and Presidio County has eight active cases.

But Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara said she is not planning to submit an attestation for a mask exemption, in part because there are still so many pending tests in the area.

The last testing that took place in Marfa was June 26 and 238 people tested that day. Guevara said the county has received the results of 232 negatives, 5 positives and one pending result. “We still don’t have the results from the June 30 Presidio testing,” where 208 COVID-19 tests were administered.

“I think that the best thing for the county to do is to minimize the risk – all risk – as much as possible and continue to use every safety measure that we possibly can,” Guevara said.

Presidio County, Marfa and City of Presidio had already implemented their own ordinances to require businesses to require masks prior to the governor’s order. “At this time, each municipality and the county has a mask ordinance, and because of the sudden spike, it’s best to continue to wear masks and continue the other safety measures of social distancing,” Guevara said.

Guevara said she would not lead the county toward an exemption, or ask the commissioners court to pursue it, especially when considering Alpine’s sudden outbreak of cases at the end of June and early July. “It’s best for us to be as safe as possible.”

Jeff Davis County Judge Kerith Sproul-Hurley said an exemption “is something of course that we’re going to consider, but we still do not have all of our test results back, so we’re going to wait for those to pan out and see how that goes.” As the smallest population in the tri-county area, they have so far been spared an outbreak of coronavirus, with the four active cases being all they have had.

Judge Sproul-Hurley clarified that for now, the mask order is in place for Jeff Davis County residents, adding, “We’d do [the mask exemption] if it felt appropriate, but we’re not to that point yet.”

In a reverse 911 informational message shared online by Jeff Davis Commissioner Todd Jagger, the county explained the exemption caveat on Friday, July 3. “The order allows counties with fewer than 20 cases to apply for an exemption, but until, or when, an exemption is approved, THIS ORDER STANDS AS WRITTEN.” It continued, “Today is a state holiday so no exemptions will be reviewed or authorized until sometime next week.” The county is expected to discuss it further this week.

Aside from the countywide exemptions, individuals do not have to wear a mask under a wide range of circumstances the governor laid out in the order. Individuals include those under the age of 10 and those with a medical condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering do not have to wear masks at all.

Anyone seated at a restaurant or consuming food or drink, exercising outdoors while maintaining six feet of distance from others not in their household, swimming, driving alone or with others in their household, giving a speech for a broadcast or to an audience and those receiving a service that requires exposing the face can go without a mask for those activities.

And then there are exemptions for poll workers, those assisting voters and voters themselves, even though distancing isn’t mentioned as a requirement there and voting is in an indoor, enclosed space. The order does say that wearing a face covering is strongly encouraged though.

That strong encouragement also accompanies the mask exemption for people “actively providing or obtaining access to religious worship.”

The governor did explicitly indicate one situation in his order that did not qualify as an exemption to the mask rules. “Not excepted from this face-covering requirement is any person attending a protest or demonstration involving more than 10 people and who is not practicing safe social distancing of six feet from other people not in the same household.” Those circumstances already fall under an aforementioned requirement of masking up when outdoors and unable to maintain six feet of distance from others.

Local law enforcement may first issue a verbal or written warning to those violating the mask order. The second time an individual is violating the order, the act is punishable by a fine up to $250, and subsequent offenses are punishable by additional fines up to $250. The governor was clear that there is no penalty of jail time for violating this order.