Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Thursday requiring residents across the state to wear a face-covering in public spaces in counties with 20 or more positive Covid-19 cases as the outbreak rapidly spreads across the Lone Star state.
"Wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19," Abbott said in a press release.
"We have the ability to keep businesses open and move our economy forward so that Texans can continue to earn a paycheck, but it requires each of us to do our part to protect one another — and that means wearing a face-covering in public spaces," he added.
Abbott also issued a proclamation giving mayors and county judges the ability to impose restrictions on some outdoor gatherings of over 10 people.
Texas carved out several exemptions to the order, waiving the requirement for religious services. Kids under the age of 10 and people with a medical condition that prevents wearing a face covering are exempt from the order. The order says face coverings are also not required while exercising or voting, among other activities.
The order, however, expressly requires anyone at a protest or demonstration with more than ten people to cover their face. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has previously warned about the "potential for widespread transmission" of the coronavirus at "group gatherings during church events and within the broader community."
After the first violation of the order, people will be issued a verbal or written warning, according to the text of the order. Every subsequent violation is punishable by a fine of up to $250. Local police "can and should" enforce the rule, according to the order, but Abbott said police cannot detain or arrest people for violating it. The order is effective as of 12:01 p.m. Friday, local time.
Abbott's announcement comes after the governor had resisted calls for a statewide mandate by some Democratic politicians. The governor did allow local and city officials to issue their own requirements, but only after nine mayors from some of the largest cities in Texas sent a letter to Abbott, urging him to give them the "authority to set rules and regulations" mandating face masks in public.
Abbott said in a recorded announcement that he made the decision because the percent of total tests coming back positive and the hospitalization rate both increased too much. In the second half of May, Texas reported an average of about 1,500 new coronavirus cases every day, Abbott said. In the past week, "that number quadrupled," he said.
"Both of those danger zones have now been triggered," he added.
The CDC and the World Health Organization recommend that people wear masks as a way to slow the spread of the virus. Scientists say the virus can spread through respiratory droplets that pass when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Studies suggest the masks serve as a helpful barrier.
On Wednesday, Texas reported a record-high spike of 8,076 new cases in a 24-hour period, according to the state health department. The virus has now infected more than 168,000 people in Texas and killed at least 2,481 people.
By comparison, New York state had around 10,000 new daily cases at the height of its pandemic earlier this year.
Across Texas, there are 12,894 hospital beds and 1,322 ICU beds still available, but hospitals in some particularly hard-hit areas like Houston have said they are approaching surge capacity.
"We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast, there is little margin for error," Abbott said.
As more Texans have become infected with the virus, fallen ill and become hospitalized, Abbott last week ordered the suspension of elective procedures to make more room for Covid-19 patients in hospitals throughout the hardest hit counties: Bexar, Dallas, Harris and Travis counties. On Tuesday, he expanded the order to include Cameron, Hidalgo, Nueces and Webb counties. That affects some of Texas' biggest cities, including San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Austin.
"Importantly, these spikes are not limited to just the big cities," Abbott said. "More than 91 counties have hit record-high numbers in just the past three days."
Texas was among the first states to reopen. Abbott allowed the state's stay-at-home order to end on April 30 and by May 1, all stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls were allowed to reopen with modifications.
"Covid-19 is not going away," he added. "In fact, it's getting worse."