A growing number of sheriffs in Texas say they are refusing to follow a recent executive order requiring masks in public. Governor Greg Abbott’s mandate aims to slow the spread of coronavirus, as cases in the state soared past 200,000 on Tuesday.
Police officials in at least nine counties — including Denton, Houston, Montgomery, Gillespie, Upshur, Kerr, Gregg, Nacogdoches and Panola — said they will not impose the ruling with verbal or written citations. Some counties cited staffing issues, while others said the language in the order makes it impossible to police.
Abbott, a Republican who had previously relaxed coronavirus lockdown measures and did not encourage the use of face masks, reversed his course last week to make masks mandatory statewide and limit gatherings of more than 10 people. Cases have exploded across Texas in recent weeks, pushing hospital staff to their limits.
The order states that authorities can fine repeat offenders up to $250, but says offenders cannot be detained or jailed. Several counties said this language makes the rule nearly impossible to enforce, because stopping people could be seen as detaining.
After voicing his concerns with local media, Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree wrote on Facebook on Friday that people are “mad” at him for refusing to comply with the mandate.
“The order is not a law, there is no requirement that any police officer enforce it, and it’s unenforceable,” Murphree wrote. “We can’t spend our time running from place to place for calls about mask we can really do nothing about.”
At the same time, a Denton resident launched a Change.org petition calling for Murphree’s resignation and removal, which has gained over 4,500 signatures.
Denton is the largest country in the state that has publicly said it does not plan to follow the order. Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi tweeted that it should not be the job of law enforcement to tell people to wear masks. “Everyone needs to wear a mask, but don’t put us in this position,” he tweeted, calling the order “draconian.”
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s office said it would take “NO action” to demand masks, arguing that the order does not allow law enforcement to detain, arrest or confine in order to enforce it. “This language strips law enforcement of the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law,” the office wrote on Facebook on Saturday.
Several counties echoed the sentiment, saying that the language in the order made it unenforceable by officers.
In addition to not enforcing the order, the Upshur County Sheriff’s Office and the Gillespie County Sheriff’s Office said that they will not require deputies to wear face masks on duty. They cited the desire to protect the safety of officers and the need to effectively communicate as reasons for forgoing masks.
In a Facebook Live video, County Sheriff Jason Bridges said his deputies will also not be enforcing the order to wear masks or limit gatherings, claiming that he promised to defend the U.S. Constitution. He said that Abbott’s recent initiatives are “borderline infringing on those Constitutional rights.”
Kerr County Sheriff Rusty Hierholzer said his officers will be wearing masks, but not issuing citations.
“Don’t get me wrong. I believe this virus is real and I believe face masks can help stop the spread,” Hierholzer said on Thursday. “My officers will be wearing face masks. We will try to educate the public on the importance of wearing them, but if Governor Abbott wants citations issued, he needs to use state officers to do so. He has more officers at his disposal than I will ever have.”
In a follow-up Facebook post on Sunday, the sheriff said that people have criticized his stance, but reiterated that he believes the order may be unconstitutional. He said that people have the right to defend themselves against unconstitutional laws.
Similarly, the Panola County Texas Sheriff’s Office said on Monday that it “strongly” encourages the use of masks, but said it will not issue warning or citations, calling compliance “voluntary.” The office said that it does not have the staff to track individual warnings and citations.
In a departure from other counties, the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office said that it will enforce mask rules, first with education and requesting voluntary compliance, then with verbal or written warnings and as a last resort, with a written citation. The office also noted that businesses have the right to refuse patrons who do not wear masks.
On Monday, Abbott blasted local leaders for how they have reacted to his order.
“All of those local officials who are asking Texas to shut back down — they’ve absolutely refused to enforce the current executive orders that are already in place,” he told CBS News affiliate KFDM. “What they need to show is action, not absenteeism. They need to show up, enforce the law as it is, before they’re given any further authority. They ask for more and more, but they do absolutely nothing.”
“Here’s the reality: Every single one of these executive orders that have been issued were done based upon the advice of doctors to ensure that if these executive orders were enforced as local authorities have had the authority to do so, it would stop the spread of the coronavirus, especially this most recent order,” he added. “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.”
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