A growing number of sheriffs in Texas say they refuse to follow a recentrequiring masks in public. Gov. Greg Abbott’s term aims to curb the spread of the coronavirus, as cases in the state soared more than 200,000 on Tuesday.
Police officers 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 quotes. Some counties mentioned personnel problems, while others said the language in the order makes it impossible to monitor.
Abbott, a Republican who had previously relaxed the coronavirus blockade measures and not encouraged the use of face masks, reversed its course last week to make masks mandatory across the state and limit meetings of more than 10 people. Cases have exploded across Texas in recent weeks, pushingto its limits.
The order states that authorities can fine repeat offenders up to $ 250, but says that offenders cannot be detained or jailed. Several counties said this language makes the rule almost impossible to apply, because detaining people could be seen as an arrest.
After voicing his concerns with local media, Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree wrote on Facebook on Friday that people are “angry” with him for refusing to carry out the mandate.
“The order is not a law, there is no requirement that any police officer enforce it, and it cannot be enforced,” Murphree wrote. “We can’t spend our time running from place to place for mask calls that we really can’t do anything about.”
At the same time, a Denton resident launched a Change.org petition calling for the resignation and removal of Murphree, which has obtained more than 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 shouldn’t be the job of the police 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 stop, arrest or confine it to enforce it. “This language strips law enforcement of the tools necessary to enforce the law,” the office wrote on Facebook on Saturday.
Several counties echoed the sentiment, saying the language in the order made it impossible for officers to enforce it.
In addition to not enforcing the order, the Upshur County Sheriff’s Office and the Gillespie County Sheriff’s Office said they will not require officers to wear on-duty face masks. They cited the desire to protect the safety of officers and the need to communicate effectively as reasons for giving up the masks.
In a Facebook Live video, County Sheriff Jason Bridges said his deputies will also not enforce the order to wear masks or limit meetings, claiming that he promised to uphold the United States Constitution. He said Abbott’s recent initiatives are “a borderline violation of those constitutional rights.”
Kerr County Sheriff Rusty Hierholzer said his officers will wear masks but will not issue citations.
“Don’t get me wrong. I think this virus is real and I think facial masks can help stop the spread,” Hierholzer said Thursday. “My officers will wear face masks. We will try to educate the public about the importance of wearing them, but if Governor Abbott wants appointments to be issued, he needs to use state officials to do so. He has more officers at his disposal than I will ever have.”
In a follow-up Facebook post Sunday, the sheriff said people had 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 Monday that it “strongly encourages” the use of masks, but said it will not issue warnings or citations, calling the compliance “voluntary.” The office said it does not have the staff to track individual warnings and appointments.
In a departure from other counties, the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office said it will enforce the mask rules, first with education and requesting voluntary compliance, then with verbal or written warnings and, as a last resort, with a written subpoena. The office also noted that companies have the right to reject customers who do not wear masks.
On Monday, Abbott criticized local leaders for how they have reacted to his order.
“All local officials who are asking Texas to shut down again have absolutely refused to enforce the current executive orders that are already in place,” he told CBS News affiliate KFDM. “What they must show is action, not absenteeism. They must show up, enforce the law as it is, before they are given more authority. They ask for more and more, but they do absolutely nothing.”
“This is the reality: each of these executive orders that were issued relied on the advice of physicians to ensure that if these executive orders were followed when local authorities had the authority to do so, the spread of the coronavirus would be stopped, especially this more recent order, “he added. “If local officials enforce the order of the mask, the spread of the coronavirus will slow down. They just now need to step up and begin to enforce the orders that are already in place.”