Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order mandating the use of masks in Texas. A growing number of county sheriffs, however, have said that they won’t enforce the order, calling it unenforceable and unconstitutional.
The sheriffs of nine counties – Upshur, Panola, Nacogdoches, Montgomery, Kerr, Houston, Gregg, Gillespie and Denton – have sworn that they will not even consider upholding Abbott’s new directive. This comes as the state’s number of confirmed coronavirus cases soared past 200,000 on Tuesday.
Abbott’s order allows counties with 20 or fewer active COVID-19 cases to opt-out of the mask mandate, and over 40 counties in the state have already done so. But all nine counties refusing to enforce the mandate have more than 20 coronavirus cases each, according to data gathered from their websites.
Abbott’s mask order is difficult to enforce
When Abbott relaxed Texas’ coronavirus lockdown measures, he initially did not require Texans to wear face coverings while in public. He reversed course this last week, however, issuing an order that made the wearing of face masks mandatory statewide.
The order states that law enforcement officials will be able to charge repeat offenders with a fine of up to $250. However, no offenders may be detained or jailed for not wearing a mask.
This language in the directive, many have argued, is what makes it difficult to enforce – stopping people who aren’t wearing masks could be seen as detaining them.
In Montgomery County, the Sheriff’s Office argued that because the mandate did not allow law enforcement to detain, confine or arrest individuals who don’t follow the order, it stripped them of “the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law,” and, therefore, see no reason to enforce it. Many other counties have used this argument, while others have stated staffing problems.
“The order is not a law, there is no requirement that any police officer enforce it, and it’s unenforceable,” wrote Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree on Facebook on Friday. “We can’t spend our time running from place to place for calls about masks we can really do nothing about.”
“Draconian” mask order violates constitutional rights
Murphree and other police officials in the nine Texas counties have said that they will not impose the ruling with either verbal or written citations. (Related: Harvard doctor wants US to enforce national mask mandate; Surgeon General says order may lead to REBELLION.)
On Twitter, Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, called the mask mandate “draconian” and said that the task of enforcing it should not be given to law enforcement.
While we in law enforcement are desperately trying to build trust w/our community and are spread incredibly thin with the huge rise in violent crime, we are now expexcted to enforce yet another draconian mask law.
Everyone needs to wear a mask, but don’t put us in this position.
— Joe Gamaldi (@JoeGamaldi) July 2, 2020
Similarly, the Panola County Texas Sheriff’s Office said that, while they strongly encourage the wearing of face masks, they believe that compliance should be voluntary and that they do not have the manpower to keep tabs on individual warnings and citations.
In a Facebook Live video, Nacogdoches County Sheriff Jason Bridges said that his deputies will not be enforcing Abbott’s mask mandate, nor will he be limiting gatherings. Bridges argued that he was sworn in to defend the U.S. Constitution and that many of Abbott’s recent directives are close to infringing on many of their constitutional rights.
Rusty Hierholzer, Kerr County Sheriff, said on Thursday that while he believes that the coronavirus is real and that it should be taken seriously, his officers will not be issuing citations for not wearing a mask. Instead, what he will do is educate his county’s residents on why it’s important to wear a mask.
Hierholzer further stated that if the governor of Texas wants law enforcement officials to issue citations for his mask mandate, then that job should fall on the state police.
“He has more officers at his disposal than I will ever have,” said Hierholzer. He followed this up with a message on social media posted on Sunday where he echoed Bridges’ concerns about how the mask mandate might be unconstitutional.
The Gregg County Sheriff’s Office, as a departure from the eight other counties, said that they will enforce the mask mandate. However, they will educate their residents and request voluntarily compliance with the mask mandate first before they proceed with verbal and written warnings, turning to written citations as a last resort.
Abbott blasts officials for refusing to enforce his mask mandate
During an interview with KFDM anchor Tiffany Murphy, Abbott took issue with elected officials, including sheriffs, who were refusing to enforce his mask mandate. He criticized them for what he called “absenteeism” instead of action on their parts.
He compared the sheriffs who are refusing to enforce his directive to the local officials who are asking that Texas’ economy be shuttered once more and everybody placed on lockdown again. These officials, Abbott argued, need to enforce the law they’ve sworn to uphold before doing anything else.
“They ask for more and more, but they do absolutely nothing,” he said.
He went on to say that he issued an executive order to mandate the wearing of masks based upon the advice of health experts. “If local officials enforce the mask order, it will slow the spread of the coronavirus. They just now need to step up and begin to enforce the orders that are already in place.”
Learn more about what states like Texas are doing — and not doing — to fight coronavirus at Pandemic.news.