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Nine Texas mayors ask governor to allow them to require masks

Sylvester Turner is one of nine Texas mayors asking Gov. Greg Abbott to give cities the option to make masks mandatory.

HOUSTON — Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and eight other Texas mayors are asking Governor Greg Abbott to rethink his policy blocking cities from requiring masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

They say a “one size fits all” approach isn’t working and local officials -- not state -- should decide whether masks should be mandatory.

The mayors point out that wearing masks would help avoid a second wave of coronavirus that could shut down businesses again.

Despite scientific studies that show face coverings work, the mayors say many people in their cities refuse to wear them.

“While it’s important to get our economy working again, we must also take precautions to avoid a massive influx of new cases overwhelming our hospitals,” the mayors said in the letter to Abbott. “And if mayors are given the opportunity to require face coverings, we believe our cities will be ready to help reduce the spread of this disease. We think you would agree that a healthy economy starts with healthy people.”

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In a news conference to address the record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Texas, Abbott urged Texans to wear masks, wash their hands frequently and practice social distancing.

But when Houston and other Texas cities tried to mandate face coverings early in the pandemic, the governor overruled them.

Along with Turner, mayors from Dallas,Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin, Plano, Arlington, El Paso and Grand Prairie signed the letter.

When asked for an interview or a comment from Abbott on the mayors' letter, his spokesman, John Wittman, first referred to the comments Abbott made during Tuesday's press conference. The comments came when a reporter asked Abbott about Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins' letter, asking the governor to consider requiring face masks.

“I make clear on a daily basis around the entire state of Texas that wearing masks is very important and local officials send that same message," Abbott said during a COVID-19 briefing Tuesday. "So all of us have a collective responsibility to educate the public that wearing a mask is the best thing to do. Putting people in jail, however, is the wrong approach for this thing. And that’s exactly what I believe the Dallas County judge wants to do is throw people in jail and that’s wrong. I will point out this, and that is ... Judge Jenkins has had available to him other tools of enforcement and he hasn’t lifted a finger to use those other tools of enforcement. And so he seems to be taking a somewhat two-faced approach as it concerns his pleas for enforcement. He needs to avail himself of the tools that are available to him for enforcement.

“I’m talking about the county judge," Abbott said, "whether it be the county judge or elsewhere, they do have the ability to impose fines, not for facemasks, but for other strategies. For example, the types of gatherings (where) people gather in certain locations, they may not be in compliance with the protocols, and this would be subject to fines. And even though Judge Jenkins and any other local officials has had the authority to impose fines, they haven’t lifted a finger to do so.”

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Wittman also sent a statement adding to the Governor's comments.

“None of these local officials have lifted a finger to impose penalties and enforcement mechanisms currently available to them. The one time a county judge did, a business owner wound up in jail," Wittman wrote in an email. 

Here is the mayors' entire letter to the governor:

Dear Governor Abbott,Thank you for your leadership during these challenging times. Our citiesbenefited immensely from a coordinated, cooperative effort with each other in the early stages of our fight against COVID-19.  With the increase in testing, we are naturally seeing more people being diagnosed with COVID-19, and some areas are seeing confirmed cases increasing more rapidly than testing. While it’s important to get our economy  working  again,  we  must  also  take  precautions  to  avoid  a  massive  influx  of  new  cases overwhelming our hospitals.  That’s why we are writing to you today about one of the best ways to keep businesses open and people safe from COVID-19: the wearing of facemasks.  This one step could prove to be the most effective way to prevent the transmission of this disease.  Yet many people in many of our cities are still refusing to wear these face coverings even though these coverings are scientifically proven to help prevent the disease from spreading.We are writing to you for the authority to set rules and regulations on the use of face coverings in each of our cities.  A one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option.  We should trust local officials to make informed choices about health policy.  And if mayors are given the opportunity to require face coverings, we believe our citieswill be ready to help reduce the spread of this disease. We think you would agree that a healthy economy starts with healthy people. If you do not have plans to mandate face coverings statewide, we ask that you restore the ability for local authorities to enforce the wearing of face coverings in public venues where physical distancing cannot be practiced.We appreciate your consideration in allowing for a more nuanced and tailored recovery so that our cities, state, and nation can heal as quickly as possible.