Texans should continue to wear their masks, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said on Tuesday after Gov. Greg Abbott announced he would end all statewide pandemic protections and mandates next week.
Jenkins, a frequent critic of how Abbott handled the state’s response to the global coronavirus pandemic, called the decision to reopen Texas fully with no face covering requirement “unfortunate.”
Abbott’s Tuesday announcement, which coincided with Texas Independence Day, also fell on the same day Dallas County recorded its 3,000th COVID-19 related death, Jenkins noted. The governor’s changes go into effect next Wednesday, a year to the day that Dallas County announced its first COVID-19 case.
“If you’re interested in knowing what you can get away with, listen to the governor,” Jenkins said at a virtual afternoon news conference. “If you’re interested in knowing what doctors say will keep you, your business and your family safe, listen to me and the doctors.”
To be sure, Abbott did not say Texans should not wear masks in public.
During the governor’s announcement in Lubbock on Tuesday, he said Texans should continue to follow “all medical advice” but that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend people wear masks that cover their nose and mouth in public. What’s more, experts now suggest wearing two masks is more effective.
Compulsory mask wearing has become a flashpoint during the last year, fueled largely by conservatives who see face coverings and other mitigation efforts as an infringement on personal liberty.
Jenkins suggested that businesses will maintain mask requirements and customers will flock to establishments that protect them.
“I think you’ll see a strong response from businesses and a strong response from customers,” Jenkins said.
But viral social videos have captured fights breaking out in stores over mask wearing. Jenkins suggested without the backing of the state, businesses that maintain mask wearing will be forced to face hostile crowds with no reinforcements.
His office said it did not believe Jenkins had the authority to impose a local mask mandate for individuals unless COVID hospitalizations increase.
However, Jenkins signaled he would discuss with other local officials and business leaders whether to continue an order requiring customers to wear masks in Dallas County.
“We still have a lot of risk out there,” Jenkins said. “We need to continue to care for one another.”
Jenkins’ concern over the governor’s decision is not isolated. Even before Abbott made his announcement, other Dallas County officials worried another wave of infections would follow.
“We think it’s premature,” Dr. Philip Huang, the county’s health director, told Dallas commissioners hours before Abbott’s decision. “It’s still too early. We’d all love to get back to normal. [But] it’s not the time to relax.”
Before the governor’s announcement, commissioners at their meeting lamented the possibility of the rollback of restrictions, which they believe will yield mixed messages and send COVID cases soaring back up.
“If the governor lifts restrictions,” Commissioner Elba Garcia, a Democrat from west Dallas County, said, “it’s going to be even more confusing.”
A recent study by the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation suggested the county could reach herd immunity by the end of June if compliance with mask wearing and physical distancing was maintained and the county was able to vaccinate up to 65,000 people per week. Nearly 302,000 Dallas County residents have received at least one shot of the two-dose vaccines approved by the federal government.
“It’s very important that we keep it all going to reach herd immunity,” Jenkins said, referring to masks, other safety precautions and vaccines. “We have three more months to hit this hard.”
UT Southwestern Medical Center this week projected further declines in the number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19, but warns “the rate of decline has begun to slow.”
“As more contagious variants start to appear in Texas, it’s crucial to ensure that hospitals have capacity to treat patients. Compliance with physical distancing, masking, hand hygiene and crowd management policies is especially needed,” the report said.
“We know what the facts and science tell us,” Jenkins said. “We know masking works.”
Staff writers Sue Ambrose and Allie Morris contributed to this report.