Law enforcement faces challenges enforcing mask ordinances

MARFA — There have been a growing number of reports of mask violations throughout the tri-county, including calls from concerned residents to police. That rise in violations comes despite the fact that Texas still has mandatory mask rules, as do local governments in the region.

Presidio, Brewster and Jeff Davis counties have all either adopted their own mask rules or have chosen not to seek an exemption from state ones. In Marfa, a local mask ordinance has been in effect for months. And one of Governor Greg Abbott’s orders — still in effect — makes not wearing a mask in businesses and crowded public spaces punishable by up to a $250 fine.

But after months of confusing mask guidance from the state, some residents and businesses in the region are either confused about the rules or are defying them. Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez said he’s received multiple complaints about people not wearing masks at the Stripes convenience store on the east side of town.

A manager told police the store was not going to require masks. “I called him up and advised him that wasn’t going to work,” Marquez said. Then, over the weekend, Marfa police received a complaint regarding the other Stripes on the west side of town. In that case, a caller complained that both customers and employees were ignoring mask rules, Marquez said.

Marquez spoke to an area store manager in Fort Stockton. According to Marquez, she told him that the company was worried about losing business from people who did not want to wear masks. Marquez again stressed that Marfa’s mask rules were mandatory. At press time, Marfa city leaders were considering next steps, including a possible fine for the company.

A spokesperson for Stripes said the company’s “number one focus” was to “provide a safe, clean and excellent customer experience when visiting our stores.” The spokesperson did not comment further on the situation in Marfa, including the allegation that Stripes was intentionally breaking laws to avoid losing business. “Any further questions,” he said, “should be directed to the City of Marfa Police Department.”

In Alpine last month, a video went viral showing university police trying to escort a maskless man out of the Sul Ross State University rodeo. “I have every right in the world to knock you out,” the man tells officers in the video. The rodeo ultimately shut down to everyone but families and coaches, and the incident helped demonstrate the deep anger that some tri-county residents feel towards mask requirements.

Last week, in a letter to the editor, a reader said she’d stopped shopping at a Porter’s grocery store in Alpine because they weren’t doing enough to enforce mask rules.

Ky Ellison, a spokesperson for Porter’s, directed The Big Bend Sentinel to the company’s coronavirus policies and procedures. That document says Porter’s has “closely followed” legal requirements but does not explicitly list mask requirements for customers (though it does for employees). Ellison did not respond to follow-up questions on this issue.

Erik Zimmer, the Alpine city manager, said that since the start of the crisis, some businesses in Alpine “have always said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to enforce the mask thing.’” But with businesses across the country already struggling, the city didn’t want to take a heavy-handed approach.

“Many of these businesses are on the brink of turning upside down and shutting their doors,” Zimmer said. And that doesn’t just affect the business owners, he said: each business, at a bare minimum, offers “three to four jobs that are needed in the community.”

Meanwhile, on a recent visit to Fort Davis, maskless customers and employees could be seen at businesses in town. Teresa Todd, the county attorney for Jeff Davis County, said some residents are simply ignoring mask rules.

Though authorities can technically ticket people for these offenses, Todd said that would require huge amounts of additional work for her and other county officials — especially if authorities tried to enforce the rules consistently. “As busy as I am right now, I can’t also take on a caseload of non-mask wearers,” she said.

In both Alpine and Fort Davis, authorities are taking a light-handed approach towards mask violations, choosing conversations with violators over fines and citations. Back in April, the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office said on social media that deputies “will not enforce any ordinance related to wearing masks.” The sheriff’s office could not immediately be reached for comment on whether that was still its position, but an employee at the sheriff’s office said they were getting few complaints, anyways.

Likewise for the Alpine Police Department, where Chief Robert Martin said he’s received just one complaint from a business — in that case, a Porter’s — about a customer not wearing a mask. But that issue was resolved by the time police responded, Martin said. And so far, city police have issued zero citations for people who violate mask rules.

“We’ve tried to take the avenue of asking people to [wear masks] rather than penalizing people if they don’t,” Chief Martin said. “I think we’ve had a lot better success doing it that way.”

Bill Kitts, the sheriff in Jeff Davis County, agreed. He’s also received just one complaint from a business about someone not following mask rules and has also issued no citations. Like Chief Martin, he thought warnings and conversations were more effective.

When pressed on this — what about other laws people didn’t want to follow, like rules against drinking in public parks? — both Martin and Kitts said situations like these were also handled on a case-by-case basis. “There’s always discretion,” Kitts said.

Like Todd, Sheriff Kitts said he was busy enough without also enforcing mask rules across the county. And besides, he was trying to keep his own deputies safe.

“We’re trying to be extra cautious,” he said. “If one of us goes down, we’ve all got to quarantine.” With just a sheriff and four deputies for the whole county, Kitts and others weren’t looking for verbal confrontations.