SAN ANTONIO — In a letter to Governor Greg Abbott, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff asked him to reconsider his order that does not allow local jurisdictions to enforce mask orders amid a spike in coronavirus cases.
Wolff said that the governor's choice to only suggest a face covering has contributed to people not wearing masks, which has contributed to a second wave in San Antonio and Texas.
"When you began to lift the restrictions throughout Texas starting on May 1, I was supportive," Wolff wrote. "However, I did not agree with your decision to limit the authority of local jurisdictions to impose a penalty on individuals who failed to wear a face covering in instances where proper social distancing could not be maintained."
Abbott's office responded with a statement from the governor.
"Judge Wolff and I have a philosophical difference. He believes in government mandates, I believe in personal responsibility," he said. "Every interview that I've had on TV, I talk about the individual responsibility to wear a face guard to make sure that you don't either transmit COVID-19 or that you don't get it. It's up to every individual in the state to make sure that we slow the spread of COVID-19."
On Friday, Texas restaurants were allowed to begin operating at 75% capacity as part of phase 3 of reopening. This came on the same day that the state reported 2,097 new cases, making it over 12,000 new cases in the past seven days.
"If we are going to be successful in the reopening of our economy, we need to put in place some mandatory health requirements," Judge Wolff said. "The most important of these is the requirement to wear a face covering within six feet of another person."
Abbott said that he agrees with the judge and Mayor Nirenberg on the value of wearing a mask, sanitizing your hands, and practicing safe social distancing, but he doesn't think there should be a punishment for people who don't follow those guidelines.
"I don't believe government should mandate that every person must wear a mask or otherwise face a fine or go to jail," he said. "It's wrong to deprive somebody of their liberty just because they're not wearing a mask during the course of dealing with this challenge."
Here is the judge's letter in full:
Dear Governor Abbott,
Thank you for working with Mayor Nirenberg and myself throughout this COVID-19 public health crisis. When you began to lift the restrictions throughout Texas starting on May 1, I was supportive. However, I did not agree with your decision to limit the authority of local jurisdictions to impose a penalty on individuals who failed to wear a face covering in instances where proper social distancing could not be maintained.
Instead of making face coverings under those circumstances mandatory, you only suggested that people wear one and restricted local jurisdictions from making that determination for themselves. As a result, we see fewer and fewer people wearing face coverings and rates of infection are increasing.
In fact, in Bexar County we have had a large uptick in positive cases in the last week. Today, we have 172 new COVID-19 cases. We also have 138 COVID-19 patients in local hospitals, the highest number we have ever had in Bexar County.
The Director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, Dr. Dawn Emerick, announced yesterday that we are entering a second wave of increasing rates of COVID-19 infection. She stated that positive cases of COVID-19 are increasing in other metro areas of Texas as well.
If we are going to be successful in the reopening of our economy, we need to put in place some mandatory health requirements. The most important of these is the requirement to wear a face covering within six feet of another person.
If this trend continues, and I believe it will, we will see an increase in both the burden upon our community and the need for additional resources to combat the COVID-19 crisis. I am asking you to issue a new executive order which allows each local jurisdiction and its leaders to make a determination as to whether mandatory face coverings are appropriate for their community.
Nelson W. Wolff
Bexar County Judge