Police union: 'Draconian' mask order to be enforced with discretion
A Texas judge ordered residents to cover their faces in public, prompting a police union response condemning the decision
HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday ordered residents to cover their faces in public starting next week, the latest effort by local governments to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The new rules, which require residents 10 and older to cover their nose and mouth when outside the home, take effect Monday and last 30 days. Acceptable garments include a homemade mask, scarf, bandana or handkerchief. Medical masks or N-95 respirators are not recommended as they are most needed by first responders and health workers.
Under the order, the county’s 4.7 million residents must cover their faces at all times except when exercising, eating or drinking; the exemptions also include when individuals are alone in a separate single space, at home with roommates or family, or when wearing a mask poses a greater risk to security, mental or physical health. Violating the mask rules is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, though Hidalgo urged police to use discretion.
Unlike previous measures announced by the city and county executives, Hidalgo’s mask order drew fierce, partisan rebuke, highlighting what has become a national political divide over coronavirus restrictions.
Republican Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick accused Hidalgo of abusing her authority and said residents would be justified to react with anger. U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw said mask guidelines made sense, but punishments would “lead us to government tyranny.”
Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson blasted the rules as an “unenforceable power grab.”
Harris County law enforcement officers, including the fire marshal and constables, will be responsible for ensuring residents and businesses comply. The unions representing officers from the Houston Police Department and Harris County deputies, however, said their members are disinclined to do so.
“The citizens of Harris County are working hard together through this pandemic and do not need the added stress and fear of being fined or arrested for failing to wear a mask/face covering they may not have,” Harris County Deputies Organization President David Cuevas said in a statement.
Houston Police Officers Union President Joe Gamaldi, a frequent critic of Hidalgo’s approach to criminal justice, called the order idiotic and said the “draconian” measure would erode bonds between officers and the community.
HPOU response to @LinaHidalgoTX draconian mask order: “Now we want to be very clear, HPOU believes everyone should be wearing a mask in public, in order to protect themselves from the virus and we are encouraging all of our officers to wear a mask. However, we draw the line...” pic.twitter.com/XbphfNYHii— Houston Police Officers' Union (@HPOUTX) April 22, 2020
In a statement, Gamaldi said the union had reached out to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office seeking an opinion on the legality of imposing a criminal penalty or fine on someone for not wearing a face mask. The attorney general said Wednesday afternoon that police should use their discretion on duty and focus on dangerous criminals but did not limit Hidalgo’s authority.
“If we get cocky, we get sloppy, we get right back to where we started, and all of the sacrifices people have been making have been in vain,” Hidalgo said while wearing a homemade mask. “Let’s not get complacent. Let’s remember that we still have work to do.”