As the COVID-19 health crisis continues to worsen, Denton County commissioners on Tuesday sparred over whether to institute a countywide face mask ordinance, ultimately deciding against the public health department’s recommendations and citing an inability to enforce.

Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson spoke with a sense of urgency during the public health portion of Tuesday’s meeting, saying the COVID-19 crisis is intensifying. In addition to an increasing number of new coronavirus cases, Richardson said both symptoms onset and the weekly percent positivity continued to trend in the wrong direction.

Later that afternoon, health officials announced 105 new virus cases in Denton County — the second-highest one-day increase since 115 cases were recorded on Wednesday, June 24.

With COVID-19 hospitalizations increasing by roughly 500% in recent weeks, Richardson said the time to act is now.

“All of these things working together are really heightening our concern, and due to that concern, we are recommending to the Commissioners Court to consider health and safety plans for businesses that would require masks,” he said. “We know that the economy and accounting is very important, but we think that it’s important, more than ever, to take these [measures].”

According to daily hospital capacities, roughly 53% of all hospital beds — including 42% of intensive care unit beds — are occupied, while 17% of ventilators are in use. The total number of Denton County hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients was 49, as of Monday.

Denton County Judge Andy Eads said the public health crisis is not over but that masks would not be mandated.

“We are not out of the woods, and we are asking the public to wear masks, but we are not requiring [them],” Eads said. “We are focusing on the things that we can do, which is an aggressive marketing campaign encouraging people to do the right thing.”

A significant hurdle to implementing a countywide face mask ordinance is whether the mandate could be civilly or criminally enforced by the District Attorney’s Office. During Tuesday’s meeting, John Feldt, chief of the civil division with the District Attorney’s Office, said that because of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, a mask ordinance is “aspirational.”

Under Abbott’s executive order No. GA-28, “no jurisdiction can impose a civil or criminal penalty for failure to wear a face covering.” Commissioner Hugh Coleman said the county should not enact something without the ability to enforce it.

Eads noted that Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree said he would not enforce a mask requirement on county property, further challenging any meaningful action. Instead, Eads noted that the county government would continue to recommend that masks be worn.

While commissioners have argued their hands are tied by state government, Richardson said nobody wants another shutdown — but that it’s “way late” for containment. He said the community, however, has a responsibility to try.

“One of my household members is undergoing injections of chemotherapy for an immunocompromised disease, and my parents are both immunocompromised. We don’t know who is asymptomatic, and that’s the point,” Richardson said. “It is our collective responsibility, our ethical and moral obligation, to protect each other. … Facial coverings, physical distancing, hand washing … these are not political assumptions or manifestations, and is not red or blue — this is simply the science.”

A handful of public comments were submitted prior to Tuesday’s meeting, with most opposing any mask ordinance.

As Tuesday’s meeting rolled on to other agenda items, commissioners approved technology purchases for county departments. An order for Community Supervision and Corrections includes 326 laptops, 335 docking stations, 112 USB cameras, several monitors and licensing fees, and specific items such as “temporary contractors.”

The $811,890 purchase serves to facilitate social distancing and telework amid COVID-19. Eads said the funding for the laptops and other technology purchases came through available CARES Act money.

Commissioners also approved extending the disaster declaration through Tuesday, June 28, but no significant changes were made, because local and county governments cannot supersede state actions during the pandemic.

RYAN HIGGS can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @ryanahiggs.

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