Escalation: Mayor tells Houstonians to mask up or pay up

The mayor of Houston has lowered the boom. He’s aggravated that the city is having a hard time getting the coronavirus outbreak under control, so what’s a politician to do? Fine the citizens of the city, of course.

The mask wars have been a bumpy ride in Texas. It’s crackdown time on those who refuse to wear a face mask in public. On Monday, Mayor Sylvester Turner instructed the Houston Police Department to first issue warnings with citations to those who are not wearing a face mask. Then, if the warning is not heeded and the person refuses to put on a mask, a fine of $250 will be levied.

This is an escalation from the mayor’s previous statements about face masks. When the county judge (the county CEO) first issued a mandate for face masks back in April, a fine of $1,000 plus possible jail time was put on the table. Mayor Turner, however, and HPD Chief Art Acevedo both assured Houstonians that the police department would not be adding the task of stopping people and issuing citations to their daily assignments. They left Harris County Judge Hidalgo out on that tree branch all by herself. She soon admitted such a mandate is hard to enforce properly.

That was then and this is now. Houston was doing quite well with the initial coronavirus outbreak in the city and Harris County. Mitigation was going smoothly on a volunteer basis, with residents listening to guidance from the medical community experts. Then, as the state began to re-open, despite the care that businesses took to do so safely, the number of cases and hospitalizations began to tick up. One of the nasty problems with this coronavirus is how quickly it spreads, even from people who are asymptomatic. After Memorial Day weekend, the alarms were sounded – hospitals were filling back up very quickly. It has been a struggle ever since.

So, Governor Abbott, who hesitated to issue a statewide face mask mandate, issued a mandate in early July. Mayor Turner has given regular coronavirus updates through press conferences. The number of cases seems to have hit a plateau in recent days but that plateau is at a higher number than hoped for by medical experts. The rate of positivity, for example, is at 17.6%, which is down from a high of nearly 26% last month but contact tracing cannot be effective until the positivity rate is at 5%. In other words, the trend is downward, just not quickly enough. So, the city residents must be punished, or something. “Lives are at stake so I’m taking this step to drive these numbers down,” Turner said.

As I said, hospitalizations are down, which is good news. Other progress is being made. Houston Health Authority Dr. David Persse offered some observations.

He said the average age of COVID patients in Houston is now 34. It peaked at 53 a few months back. The mayor blames too many street parties and house parties for spreading the virus among younger Houstonians.

Dr. Persse said they’re seeing progress in treating coronavirus patients with remdesivir and with new techniques for using steroids.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Houston is just under 50,000 and 472 people here have died.

Texas crossed the 7,000 COVID-19 death mark Monday. The state’s death toll is now at 7,016. Two-thousand of those deaths were reported in the last 10 days.

I’ll note that while the politically correct medical community points the finger at younger people gathering at “street parties and house parties”, there have also been some very large gatherings like BLM protests and there was a very large funeral held for George Floyd, too. To not include those events is irresponsible, in my opinion. There is no magic immunity to the coronavirus for protesters.

So, the mayor alerted the public of his decision. The police chief (appointed by Turner) is onboard.

“For months, we have been focusing on education and not citations, but now I am instructing the Houston Police Department to issue the necessary warnings and citations to anyone not wearing a mask in public if they do not meet the criteria for an exemption,” he said.

Police Chief Art Acevedo, who was appointed by Turner, agreed with the mayor’s order, saying it would help limit the spread of the coronavirus. He said HPD’s tally of infected and quarantined officers has grown “very rapidly,” with 108 testing positive and 64 awaiting test results.

“What we need is for people to stop worrying about selfish interests and think about the collective interests,” Acevedo said. “We are better together, and we don’t want to write tickets. We want people to do the right thing, to follow the science and simply have the courtesy to wear a mask in public and follow the other health and safety guidelines that have been put out.”

Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi issued a statement to union members.

Gamaldi, asked for comment on Turner’s order Monday, referred the Chronicle to the union’s statement to members that said, “While a $250 citation may be issued for anyone repeatedly refusing to comply and do not have a condition that exempts them, we also want to remind you that you should always give a verbal warning first and then use your discretion after that.”

“Under no circumstances shall a person be arrested for only failing to wear a mask,” the union’s statement continued. “Encourage those to wear a mask, just as we have done from day one, and remember you have discretion on Class C (misdemeanor) offenses.”

Turner said that the police will not respond to 911 calls about people not wearing masks, which you know will begin happening right away. And, he asked people to not “get mad at the police officers.” Yeah, right. I’m sure that in the summer heat and with people already stressed out and tense about the current economic climate and worries about the plague, everything will go swimmingly.

The mayor says that flu season is right around the corner so public response is crucial in August. The mayor has launched a local initiative, focused on minority communities, which educates people on how to mitigate the plague. Workers are going door to door with literature and instructions.

It’s why Mayor Turner launched the Better Together campaign. It’s an emergency outreach effort to make sure Houstonians have the knowledge and skills to protect their families from COVID-19. The goal is to drop Houston’s positivity rate down to 5% by the end of August.

It looks like this is mostly a cya measure from Mayor Turner. For months he poo-poohed a police response to those who are not following mitigation guidance or mandates, even joining in on protests, marches, and of course, the big funeral. Now that the numbers are not coming down fast enough – especially with schools about to re-open (or not) – he makes a move to appear more in charge. He’s trying to do his own kind of mitigation of his wishy-washy, inconsistent leadership.