By Carlos Morales
As coronavirus cases steadily climb in the Big Bend region, some local governments have taken up orders mandating businesses to require facial coverings, while others have either declined to enact them or have updated their orders after receiving public feedback.
The cities of Presidio and Marfa recently passed mask ordinances that would now fall in line with Gov. Greg Abbott’s previous orders. But in Alpine, city officials earlier this week balked at passing a similar ordinance for businesses and instead decided proprietors could determine whether masks would be required in their establishments.
The drafted order reviewed by Alpine officials Tuesday night said all commercial entities “providing goods and services directly to the public” must create a health and safety policy that — at a minimum — requires employees and visitors to a business to wear face coverings, where practicing social distancing isn’t possible.
But some city council members had issues with the mandate and were concerned it would place “owners in a precarious situation” and could make the city vulnerable to litigation.
The drafted order also placed a fine on businesses that didn’t comply, but Alpine Mayor Andy Ramos said he didn’t feel penalties should be placed on businesses instead of individuals. (In the past, Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott has said local governments cannot fine residents for violating mask ordinances.)
“One problem is penalizing the businesses for folks that enter the store without wearing the mask and not penalizing the person that does not wear it or adhere to the policy,” said Ramos. “And we can’t have a mask patrol going to every business location every minute on the hour to have customers escorted out.”
Enforcing such orders has been a question governments across the state are grappling with. Back in April, when the City of Alpine considered a mask requirement as a part of their reopening plan, Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson said his office wouldn’t enforce “any ordinance related to wearing masks.”
So instead of pushing forward with the ordinance as presented, Council Member Rick Stephens suggested an amendment: businesses should be required to put up one of two signs — a green one signaling masks are required before entering, or a yellow sign, saying masks are recommended but not a requirement.
“That eliminates penalties, it establishes that the business owner can determine whether masks are required or not,” said Stephens.
“So this is not about a choice that we as a council are going to make,” he added. “What we’re trying to do is protect our residents and notify those who are residents and or visitors to our city about where masks are required and where they are not and let the individual make their own decision about whether they choose to enter that establishment or not based on whether it’s a green sign or a yellow sign.”
For months now, public health professionals at local, state and federal levels have said wearing face coverings is the best way to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Council members Maria Curry and Betty Fitzgerald didn’t see problems with the ordinance as it was first drafted but said Stephens’ changes were “a good compromise.”
The ordinance was passed a day before state health officials announced several new cases of COVID-19 in Brewster County, bringing the total number of residents with the disease to 55.
Jeff Davis County Commissioners voted down a similar measure, saying they felt uneasy about forcing the requirement on businesses. Tonight, Marfa’s City Council could potentially make amendments to their mask ordinance after hearing public comment.