The mask mandate in Harris County isn't off to a great start

To say that the roll-out of a mandate for facial covering in Harris County has not gone well is an understatement. On Wednesday Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued the mandate during a press conference. Since then it has been anything but smooth sailing for her.

First, as a resident of Harris County let me explain that Lina Hidalgo isn’t an actual judge. She is Harris County’s chief executive. Her title is County Judge but she doesn’t work in a courtroom and she isn’t a lawyer. She’s the top county bureaucrat if you will. She was elected in November 2018 in the blue wave that swept all county offices, thanks to energized voter enthusiasm for voting for Beto O’Rourke that cycle in Houston that extended out through Harris County. Thanks, Beto. Until then, the Harris County Judge was a Republican who held the position since 2007. Hidalgo was 27 years old on election night and still a grad student. She has never held elected office before this one. In other words, she rode the blue wave and here she is. Emmett is a hard act to follow under any circumstances but this young newbie is now facing leading the country’s third-largest county through a pandemic.

As John wrote on Wednesday, violation of the mandate carries a $1,000 fine. A draft of the original order included jail time of 180 days besides the fine. That was taken out, though, before Hidalgo signed the mandate. The blowback was immediate. So, beginning Monday, April 27, and lasting for thirty days, here are the specifics of the order signed by Hidalgo:

Punishment for breaking rules = Fine up to $1,000. Enforcement up to Harris County law enforcement agencies.

Essential businesses must provide face coverings/training to workers whose jobs require them to come into contact w/colleagues or the public.

Permitted garments: homemade mask, scarf, bandana or handkerchief. (The presentation by Hidalgo’s office spelled bandana as banana, so that produced some jokes.)

Not recommended: N-95 respirators/medical masks because first responders need them.

Exceptions: when exercising, eating or drinking, alone and in a separate space, at home with roommates or family, or when doing so risks security, mental, or physical health

The pushback began over the fine. Frankly, the order is fairly common-sensical, but the fine is an overreach to many conservatives and certainly to law enforcement. Law enforcement doesn’t want to be tasked with stopping violators and issuing fines that will likely be found unconstitutional. It’s a waste of time and energy when the officers have other things to do. Hidalgo calls it using every tool in the toolbox and necessary to drive home the point that it is important to wear masks.

Seeking the opinion of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Houston Police Officers’ Union called the rules “draconian”. Rep. Dan Crenshaw weighed in, as did Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

“Everyone should be wearing a mask in public, I wear 1 everyday,” union president Joe Gamaldi said in a tweet. “But making not wearing 1 punishable by law, and asking our officers to enforce it, will do irreparable damage to our relationship with the community. We are already stretched too thin without having to enforce this.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, warned that Hidalgo’s order could “lead to unjust tyranny.”

“Should guidelines for masks in confined spaces be emphatically promoted? Absolutely,” Crenshaw tweeted. “But we will NEVER support 180 days in jail or $1,000 fine for not wearing a mask.”

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called Hidalgo’s order “the ultimate government overreach.”

“These kind of confused government policies fuel public anger — and rightfully so,” Patrick tweeted.

You get the picture. A local conservative activist has filed a lawsuit against Hidalgo over the order.

Houston conservative power broker Steve Hotze filed a lawsuit against Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo Thursday, alleging that her order requiring people to cover their faces in public violates the Texas Constitution and conflicts with Gov. Greg Abbott’s stay-at-home order.

Hotze, who also sued Hidalgo over her stay-at-home directive, said in a petition filed in state district court that the mask rule is at odds with a provision of the Constitution that gives the Legislature “exclusive authority to define crimes and to designate the punishments for those crimes.” The petition also contends that Hidalgo cannot issue more restrictive orders than Abbott, who has not mandated that Texans wear masks in public.

Further confusing the severity of the issue of the fine tacked on to the mandate, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, says he’ll not enforce the fine.

“Fines, I’m not even focused on that,” Turner said.

Turner made his position clear regarding Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s nose and mouth cover order. Houston Police Department will not fine residents.

Neighboring counties are not issuing similar orders on face covering.

Thursday Mayor Turner announced a free mask program will be put in place to provide masks to residents. City council members will receive them to give to district residents, masks will go to retirement communities and assisted living centers and METRO will hand masks out to riders. Turner re-emphasized that police officers won’t be issuing citations.

“When you see a police officer, for example, they’re not looking to give you a citation, you know, they’re looking to give you a mask or a face covering,” Turner said. “That’s the focus. We’re all on the same team, trying to move in the same direction to keep everybody healthy.”

Also on Thursday, four Republican Houston city council members (including my councilman) wrote a letter to Hidalgo urging her to rescind the mask order. They say that “voluntarily compliance is working and sufficient.” Frankly, that is where I’m at on the subject. I strongly believe in the effectiveness of compliance to wearing a face mask in public. I lean in the direction as an early article of Ed’s described – mask up, take all the precautions you can. Especially for those of us who are in an at-risk category, for one reason or another, it can truly be a matter of life or death.

I’m not one given to bouts of hysteria but this coronavirus pandemic is nothing to mess with. It’s not the ordinary flu. This virus is many times deadlier and it spreads quickly, at an alarming speed. Some very non-flu-like things happen to those who are hospitalized with COVID-19. Blood clots, burning sensations in extremities, the loss of a sense of smell and taste are not normal flu symptoms, certainly not that I’ve ever experienced. Why risk the exposure to yourself or to those you love?

Houstonians and Harris County residents have risen to the call to hunker down. We wear protective masks and gloves when it makes sense to do so. We are staying at home as much as possible. According to experts monitoring the city and county, the peak of the pandemic here should be May 1, so we aren’t quite there yet. The order signed by Hidalgo looks to be a rookie overreach. And, if she was going to make such a strong statement by including a fine (and originally including jail time) for violations, it should have been done much sooner in the outbreak. The point is, including a fine presents unnecessary confusion and isn’t practical. A chief executive officer should know all of that.