As local COVID-19 case numbers — including hospitalizations — continue to rise, Bell County Judge David Blackburn announced Wednesday he will implement a masking mandate for businesses to require all patrons older than 2 starting Monday.

All businesses are to require staff and visitors — including contractors and vendors — to wear face coverings while on the business’s premises and when social distancing is not possible.

The county judge said businesses have a few days to prepare for his new order. The mask mandate will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday and continue through at least 11:59 p.m. July 13. Blackburn and the Commissioners Court can extend it or end it early.

If a business breaks the order, they may be fined up to $1,000 for each violation. Local law enforcement agencies will carry out the order. Residents will also be able to report violations to a hotline by calling 254-933-5203.

“This directive is intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our community. The directive is intended to help stem the trend lines we are now seeing in the number of new cases in Bell County and to help us maintain our hospital capacity,” Blackburn said.

The county’s order requires businesses to post their health and safety policy in a highly visible spot for all employees, visitors or volunteers to read. Businesses can go further than what Bell County is requiring and include health screenings and temperature checks.

“I do not issue this directive lightly,” Blackburn said during an online news conference from the Bell County Courthouse. “But, with the numbers we are seeing, the trends that we are seeing, I issue this directive in the hopes that it will help stave off additional directives, or orders from the governor that will be much more intrusive.”

Bell County residents do not need to wear a mask while exercising outside; driving alone or with passengers from the same household; pumping gas; inside a building that requires security surveillance, such as banks; or when eating food or drinking.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Bell County Public Health District Director Amanda Robison-Chadwell has emphasized wearing a mask as a good way to ensure asymptomatic people are not spreading the virus.

“I am happy that my recommendations are generally well heard and that our local officials have been paying attention to the data. They’ve been very data driven in their decision making,” she said.

A frequent phrase brought up by mask-requirement naysayers is “my body, my choice.” That has become a mantra for some to justify not wearing a mask. Blackburn addressed that group.

“If they haven’t heard, there is a pandemic occurring,” the county judge said. “I certainly respect individual rights and all of those arguments that I have heard and that all of us have heard over the past 90 days or so since this began. But I do think that the measures that are being implemented today are much less intrusive than measures that say, for example, close businesses.”

“I think what we’re trying to do is mitigate the spread of this pandemic so we don’t have to take more drastic measures,” Blackburn said. “I think the conversation needs to shift to some degree from the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ to the ‘we.’”

Mayors back order

Temple Mayor Tim Davis and Killeen Mayor Jose Segarra acknowledged this was a tough decision, but they, along with other Bell County city leaders, support it.

“It is important that it is countywide because we’re always crossing (city limits), and I think that this will definitely help mitigate the spread countywide,” Segarra said.

The mask mandate comes down to residents respecting each other’s health, Davis said.

“My thought is that out of respect for each other that we be very diligent and deliberate about wearing our masks and taking care of ourselves so that we’re taking care of our neighbors,” the Temple mayor said.

Both mayors expressed concern about the potential of another shutdown of non-essential businesses. Both men admitted that wearing a mask is not comfortable, but it is the only way to guarantee to stop the spread of the coronavirus and to keep the local economy chugging along.

“I know it wasn’t an easy decision, and in many cases — based on the feedback I’ve received from citizens of Temple — it’s not a popular decision,” Davis said. “But again I think it is important that we as a county work hard toward keeping every safe, keeping everyone healthy both for the exchange of commerce but also just taking care of each other.”

Local governments’ plans

All Bell County government offices will require employees and visitors to wear a face covering.

Other local governments are following suit.

“City offices will continue to comply with directives given by Bell County and local health authorities,” Temple spokesman Cody Weems said. “These include maintaining proper social distancing, wearing face coverings when social distancing is not possible, and encouraging proper personal hygiene practices.”

The city of Temple has provided personal protective equipment — such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer — to its employees, Weems said.

The city of Belton — which, like Temple, has given PPE to its employees and installed protective barriers in public spaces — is examining the county’s order, spokesman Paul Romer said.

“We’re reviewing the directive that was issued today and anticipate having a response within 24 hours,” Romer said.

The Temple Independent School District will require staff and visitors to wear face masks, Superintendent Bobby Ott said.

“Temple ISD is an organization that is classified as a service provider,” Ott said. “Further, we will require staff to wear face coverings (masks) anytime we are not able to maintain social distancing of six feet. We are currently in the process of posting this signage as well.”

Staff in the Belton Independent School District have been working remotely during the pandemic. Belton ISD Superintendent Matt Smith said Blackburn’s mask requirement should improve the community’s health.

“We know that the healthier our community can be, the more likely we will be able to successfully reopen schools physically in the fall,” Smith said. “With reopening in mind, it is my hope that the community will heed the advice of Judge Blackburn and wear face masks when in public. Masks, in conjunction with handwashing and social distancing, is our best way to combat COVID-19 right now.”