The hot-potato policy to require Texans to wear face masks as a defense against surging COVID-19 infections landed in the laps of city leaders Tuesday afternoon.
For now, they passed it on.
Mayor Chris Watts called Gov. Greg Abbott’s handling of the controversy last week “disingenuous.”
“I’m frustrated that we’ve got state leaders that cannot be clear and emphatic,” Watts said.
Thousands of Texans have come down with the coronavirus at a troubling pace this month. Last week, some of the state’s most populous counties, along with the biggest cities within them, began mandating people wear face masks in public places in order to stem the spread.
“Facial coverings are effective and the science is bearing that out,” said Matt Richardson, Denton County Public Health director, during a work session with city leaders held via Zoom.
However, he stopped short of recommending the mandate for Denton or Denton County — for now.
Denton County’s infection rate is about 2.41 people per 1,000 population. Denton’s infection rate is climbing compared to Lewisville’s, but the overall disease rate in Denton County is lower than the rates in neighboring Dallas, Tarrant and Collin Counties, Richardson said.
He told city officials that’s why he wasn’t ready to recommend the mandate, but he reserved the right to come back and ask for it. City officials agreed they would reconsider should the county’s recommendation change.
But for now, Abbott’s policy puts Texas businesses in the middle, Watts said.
“If we’re going to enforce something on individual citizens, the government needs to have the courage to do that,” Watts said.
However, Watts said he wasn’t in favor of the city adopting the mandate without the county also taking the step.
“It needs to be countywide for it to really work,” he said.
Council member Deb Armintor said she was ready to adopt the mandate for the city because some business owners were asking for it. Mayor pro tem Gerard Hudspeth said nothing was stopping a business owner right now from requiring employees — or customers — to wear masks, but Armintor disagreed. Some business owners worry that without making the requirement for customers of all businesses, they don’t have an even playing field to do business.
“The experiment in personal responsibility failed,” Armintor said.
Council members Keely Briggs and Paul Meltzer also backed making the requirement now, rather than later.
“People are scared of another shut down,” Meltzer said, adding that the city needed to do all it could to make sure that people had as safe place to work and earn a living.
But council members Jesse Davis, Hudsepth and John Ryan opposed adopting the measure for now, taking issue with state leaders putting businesses in the middle.
“I have a big problem with the position the governor put us in,” Davis said. “I cannot support us fining a business for the conduct of individual customers.”
“There literally is no way to enforce this, without chasing people out of your business,” he added.
Watts said that the city was waiting to hear from the Denton Chamber of Commerce, which is surveying its members on whether they currently require customers to wear masks and whether they would support additional requirements and be able to provide masks to customers who arrive without one.
Watts underscored one point Richardson made earlier in the discussion — that as people move about post-shutdown, individuals need to avoid large groups, keep their distance from one another, wash their hands and wear masks.
“That all works together,” Watts said. “If you take a piece out of the puzzle, it won’t work.”