Aligning itself with tri-county, Jeff Davis County bucks effort to obtain mask exemption

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY — Last week, officials in Jeff Davis County were debating whether to seek an exemption from Governor Greg Abbott’s statewide mask order. With fewer than 20 active cases, the county could have sought the exemption. County Judge Kerith Sproul-Hurley last week told The Big Bend Sentinel that popular opinion was divided on whether officials should try to do so.

But when the issue came up at a virtual county commissioners court meeting on Monday, more than 20 people tuned in to oppose the exemption. Only two spoke in favor, and county leaders ultimately decided not to seek one.

Nationwide, public discussions over masks have often broken along partisan lines. Some liberals see them as a common-sense safety measure, while some conservatives see them as an affront to liberty and personal responsibility.

Those debates have been particularly fierce in Texas, where Governor Abbott in May overturned local mask orders across the state, including in Houston and Presidio.

In June, he abruptly reversed course — saying that local mask orders were never off the table and that such orders were part of the “plan in place all along.” And he continued that reversal in July, imposing new statewide rules that required masks with some exceptions, including the option for counties to apply for an exemption if they had less than 20 active cases.

Other small rural Texas counties have chosen differently. Take Pecos County, which this month sought an exemption despite outbreaks at two prisons in Fort Stockton that have given the county a total case count of at least 139.

County Judge Joe Shuster was not available for comment by press time, but Jesse Dominguez, an emergency management coordinator for the county, said he thought public opinion against masks had swayed officials.

“They’re making it up to the businesses to do their own policies,” Dominguez said. “It gives them a choice.”

A number of factors played into Jeff Davis County’s decision. At press time, the Texas Department of State Health Services showed the county had five cases, and all but one of those is considered recovered, Judge Sproul-Hurley said in an interview Monday.

But like elsewhere in the tri-county, officials worried there were discrepancies in state numbers — an issue The Big Bend Sentinel has previously reported on. The Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch, the local paper, was at the same time pegging the number of confirmed cases at eight. And Larry Francell, emergency management coordinator for the county, said the numbers could be even higher. He pointed to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing that for every one confirmed coronavirus case, there were up to 10 undiscovered ones.

And while some Jeff Davis County residents might oppose masks, the statewide mask order spared the county the painful and divisive debates on local mask ordinances seen in Alpine and elsewhere. Resident Bill Armstrong made just this point at the commissioners meeting, noting that the county had been “granted a gift from the governor” and that it would be “ill-advised to reject it.” Officials could “do the right thing,” he added, “by merely allowing the governor’s mask order to remain in effect.”

Other business owners felt similarly. “You’ve got political cover,” Jennifer Harrod, co-owner of the Fort Davis Drug Store, said of the mask rules. “The governor says you need to wear masks — so just go for it.”

Harrod was already asking customers to wear masks — but after those statewide rules came out, she says she had an easier time enforcing such rules. She wrote a letter to commissioners, urging them not to seek an exemption. She told them the mask rule “is not hurting businesses” and that protecting residents “is worth the slight inconvenience” of wearing masks.

At the meeting and beforehand, some local officials stayed quiet on their personal opinions of masks. One exception was the emergency management coordinator, Larry Francell, who came out strongly against the exemption in the meeting — saying he didn’t think the exemption was “even worth talking about” and that “even the governor, who’s no friend of masks,” had decided to impose statewide requirements.

In a follow-up interview, Francell said he’d helped urge those who opposed the exemption to tune into the meeting and speak against it. And he had no qualms about it, saying “that’s how politics works” and noting that — had the numbers been reversed — Jeff Davis County could have ended up applying for the exemption.

For Francell, that possibility wasn’t an option. Because while criticisms of masks often focus on arguments about freedom, Francell said people were seeing the issue backwards.

“We’ve got to change the narrative,” he said. “We’ve got to convince people that your rights are not being infringed upon if you are forced to wear a mask.”

On the contrary, “my rights are being infringed upon by people who do not wear masks,” Francell added. “Because you’re not protecting the health of my community — and I deserve to be safe in my community. We’ve got to start protecting each other.”