Viral video captures local fault lines on masks

TRI-COUNTY — A majority of Americans see face coverings as a common sense safety measure and courtesy during the coronavirus pandemic. In a recent poll from Morning Consult, 74% said they “always” wear masks when they leave their home. Likewise, around 60% of Americans said they had more favorable views of those who wear masks, versus those who do not.

But a vocal minority sees the issue otherwise, instead viewing masks as an affront to personal liberty. A viral video from Alpine last month is capturing those fault lines in the tri-county.

The video, which started making the rounds on Facebook last month, shows university police attempting to escort Jimmy LaBaume, a former Sul Ross State University professor, out of the Sul Ross rodeo. LaBaume, who is not wearing a mask in the video, accuses the police of assaulting him.

“I have every right in the world to knock you out,” LaBaume tells the officers as they try to remove him. But to the protests of LaBaume’s family members, at least three officers take hold of LaBaume and try to escort him out.

LaBaume did not respond to a request for comment on the incident. But as the video gained traction on social media, some residents jumped to his defense, accusing officers of mistreating LaBaume and questioning the efficacy of masks.

LaBaume, who at one point joined those social media conversations, said he was particularly upset because the incident happened on public property rather than at a private business. Requiring people to wear masks, he wrote, “is tyranny and a violation of the Constitution.”

Some residents said that, because the incident happened at a rodeo, masks should not have been required in the first place. That’s not quite accurate. While Governor Greg Abbott’s emergency orders do make exceptions for rodeos and similar events, those exceptions apply to crowd sizes — not to mask rules.

In health guidelines provided ahead of the event, Sul Ross State University emphasized the requirement for masks, stating in the event announcement, “Face coverings are required to be worn by all attendees,” and further writing, “Due to Governor Abbot’s health protocols, every person in attendance (NIRA members, vendors, coaches, ticket holders, etc.) will be required to wear a face covering except for when eating, drinking or competing.”

Still, it’s understandable why some Texans are confused about mask rules. After all, state leaders have almost gone out of their way to make such rules as confusing as possible. At first, cities and counties like Alpine and Brewster County were allowed to establish their own mask rules. Then, Governor Greg Abbott reversed those rules, banning local mask requirements.

As coronavirus case counts climbed across the state, Nelson Wolff, the county judge for Bexar County in San Antonio, tried a loophole. Instead of requiring residents to wear masks, he required businesses to require customers to wear masks.

Many observers expected those rules to be overturned — but Governor Abbott, to the surprise of almost everyone, said such rules were “authorized” and part of the “plan in place all along.” As Texas Monthly put it, Governor Abbott was treating his mask rules like a “riddle” for officials to solve. Countless other cities and counties soon jumped on what became known as the mask loophole, including Marfa and Brewster County.

Finally, in July, Governor Greg Abbott established mask rules across the state. He allowed counties with 20 or fewer active cases to apply for an exemption — but so far at least, local officials across the tri-county have not opted to apply for one, as active case numbers have oscillated above and below the threshold.

Sul Ross, for its part, said the incident was simply a matter of enforcing university policy. “The university has a mask-required policy for all university facilities at all times,” a university spokesperson said in a statement about the video. And while there are “limited exceptions” — including when “proper social distancing can be maintained” — those exceptions did not apply to the school’s rodeo.

The school declined to otherwise comment on the incident, including to provide any police documentation. The university said that masks were required at the rodeo and workers were providing masks to anyone who needed one.