Businesses are no longer required to enforce Bell County’s mask order. Instead, they are “strongly encouraged” to do so, the Commissioners Court unanimously decided Monday morning
The Commissioners Court struck down language in the order — which Bell County Judge David Blackburn issued last week and went into effect early Monday — mandating businesses to require facial coverings on their premises and removed a $1,000 fine for violating it.
Blackburn called for the mask requirement after talking to the county’s three major health care providers — Baylor Scott & White, AdventHealth and Seton — and the Bell County Public Health District. All four entities recommended mandating businesses enforce a mask order.
Additionally, Blackburn had called for it because Bell County saw a spike in COVID-19 cases last week. At least 1,081 cases have been reported in the county, with 728 infections just in June. That is 67 percent of all confirmed cases in Bell County.
“I believe that even if it was strongly encouraged given the fact that we’ve already seen what the governor is doing and will continue to do if that spike goes up,” Commissioner Russell Schneider said, alluding to the potential of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott possibly ordering for another shutdown of the state. “I think businesses will still do it. I think it’s necessary. It needs to be their choice. Their choice is to do it or potentially let the governor shut them down again.”
Patricia Davis, 78, picked up groceries Monday morning from H-E-B in Temple.
“Today was the first day I felt safe in H-E-B because everybody had masks on,” she said.
Davis lives in a rural area between Temple and Gatesville. She was blunt about the Commissioners Court’s revised directive.
“It’s stupid,” she said.
Amanda Robison-Chadwell, director of the Bell County Public Health District, said, “Nobody knows the size of the gap between ‘mandate’ and ‘strongly encourage.’ I am confident with regard to COVID-19 in Bell County that most people and businesses will continue to take measures to assure that the gap is small and that they do their part to limit the spread of this pandemic.”
Commissioners Court agenda
Schneider said wearing a mask is necessary. He was wearing one during the Commissioners Court meeting. Still, though, he motioned for the mask mandate to be eased.
“We didn’t have any collective conversation or agenda item to talk about it prior to today,” Schneider said.
That has not been the case. Blackburn has included an item regarding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on the Commissioners Court agenda since at least March. It was included on the June 22 agenda.
Blackburn had already been in talks with local businesses, chambers of commerce and municipal officials about the possibility of a mask mandate early last week. On top of that, counties and cities across the state had moved to implement mask mandates on their businesses prior to June 22.
“On every agenda since the inception of the Disaster Declaration for COVID- 19 (March 18, 2020), there has been an item on the Commissioners Court meeting agendas that allows the Court to discuss, review, modify, or rescind any order issued by the County Judge,” Blackburn said in a news release Monday afternoon.
Killeen nurse Terry Lee Knight described the commissioners’ decision as egregious and that they had made a grievous mistake — one, she said, that was a disservice to their constituents.
“Wearing masks should not be a political issue, or a ‘rights’ issue. However, you have made it one by your actions,” Knight said. “It is most definitely a medical, life and death, issue. And now, you will have to live with the knowledge that you could have done more to prevent further mortalities in this county.”
“Rest assured that those of us still alive during your re-election season will remember your choice this morning,” Knight said. “It was nothing less than shameful.”
Temple, Killeen mayors react
Temple Mayor Tim Davis is falling in line with the commissioners.
“In the ongoing effort to remain consistent with Bell County Directive No. 7, I strongly encourage the citizens of Temple to continue to wear masks when in public whenever social distancing is not possible,” Davis said, adding that masks are intrusive and cumbersome.
Davis has received emails and calls from Temple residents who said they will not wear masks because they think it is “an infringement upon their personal freedoms,” the mayor said.
“I agree,” Davis said Monday. “On the other hand, Bell County is open for business, and we are adapting to our new ‘normal’ routines. I will do my small part to keep our economy open by wearing my mask. That is something that I personally can control. My concern is that as the COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the State of Texas will take control and close businesses again, a harmful result for all of Temple’s citizenry.”
Killeen Mayor Jose Segarra — who had promised to impose his own mask mandate if the county did not do one — is considering a facial covering requirement.
“I would like to get more information from the county before I make a decision,” Segarra said. “It could happen today or in the next couple of days.”
‘Free market economy’
Commissioner Bobby Whitson said the masking mandate was confusing and burdensome to require business owners to enforce the requirement.
“A lot of this … is free market economy. If I’m a business and I want to enforce masks and anybody who wants to come to my business knows I’m going to enforce masks and they feel safer there, they can come,” Whitson said. “They don’t want to wear a mask? They don’t have to come to my business. If I’m a business that doesn’t want to enforce masks and I’m a place where people can come without masks then maybe more people will come to my business.”
Whitson expressed concern that if a business calls the police on a person who is not wearing a mask it could potentially be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
However, the Southeast ADA Center — a non-profit that provides information, training and guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act — states governments must consider “reasonable modifications” to their mask orders so that people with disabilities can shop or do other everyday tasks, according to a legal brief.
Those modifications can include allowing people to wear a loose face covering, promoting curbside pick-up service at businesses and offer appointments by phone or video calls, according to the Southeast ADA Center.
Commissioner John Driver, the sole Democrat on the Commissioners Court, said he had talked to some business owners who welcomed the change.
However, he said the sign the county offered to businesses was confusing because in small text it says that customers who do not feel comfortable wearing a mask because of their physical or mental health can still enter the store.
Commissioner Bill Schumann — the sole Commissioners Court member not to wear a mask during the Monday meeting — said he did not disagree with Schneider and that Abbott ultimately has enforcement authority.
“If you don’t participate (with strongly encouraging masks) then the inevitable enforcement is that you go from 50 percent (of capacity) to zero. You don’t have to have a law enforcement person come in and take someone out for that to happen,” Schumann said.
All orders, Schumann said, hinge on social distancing.
“The masks help in many situations, but it’s not an end-all,” said Schumann, the chairman of the Bell County Board of Health. “It’s not something that is going to usurp any of your ability to operate in just a normal fashion if you’re able to maintain that 6-foot distancing.”
Commissioners said businesses can still require patrons to wear masks. They agreed that if customers don’t follow the request, a business can call a law enforcement agency because they would be considered trespassers.
Chris Rosenberg, the chairman of the Bell County Democratic Party, said Blackburn initially made the right call on the mask order. She said the county needed an intervention after seeing a surge of cases and what she called Abbott’s mismanaged reopening of the state.
Rosenberg called the commissioners’ decision a reckless and irresponsible political ploy.
“The people of Bell County needed a definitive answer on whether wearing facial coverings protects themselves and others: Judge Blackburn gave them an answer — resounding yes,” Rosenberg said. “The Commissioners Court, however, decided to perpetuate the culture war by removing the mandate, thereby allowing businesses and their patrons to make their own decisions regarding facial coverings.”
Although the county government is no longer requiring businesses to have patrons wear a mask, the Commissioners Court decided that the Bell County Courthouse will continue to enforce visitors to wear a facial covering.