KCBD INVESTIGATES: Cutting through the clutter of mandatory mask orders

Updated: Jul. 9, 2020 at 9:39 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - While many local businesses have strictly enforced best practices for COVID-19, some say their competitors have not, creating an unlevel playing field.

The KCBD Investigates Team took a look at the evolution of Governor Abbott’s mask order and where it stands today.

Back on June 24, Lubbock Mayor Dan Pope said, “We’re not going to mandate something that is unenforceable.”

However, just two days later, after an increase in COVID-19 cases, Mayor Pope changed his position on mandatory masks.

“This is not going to change things tomorrow. But, I do believe it’s the best course,” Pope said on June 26.

But, to understand why the mayor had a change of heart, we have to start from the beginning.

“I did have a couple of independent contractors that chose to move to another location where they felt like they would not have to wear face masks,” Debbie Staudt said on June 25.

For Staudt, who owns Staudt’s Hair Salon in south Lubbock, the recommendation Governor Abbott made in May, asking salon employees and customers to wear masks was not a suggestion, especially when the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation sent out an email on May 6 which said, “Face masks or fabric face coverings should always be worn by employers, employees, contractors, and clients while inside the salon/shop, even if individuals are practicing social distancing.”

Back then, Debbie took that very seriously. However, complying with that strong recommendation from the governor seemed to come down to how you were raised.

“If my mother ever told me I should always do something growing up, you better believe I did it,” Staudt said.

Still, after seeing a post on the TDLR’s Facebook page, which said inspectors would not issue violations to those not wearing a mask, Debbie was left asking “Why?”

“I just could not believe it, because TDLR, as well as the Texas Cosmetology Commission, have always held us to such a high standard.”

Her confusion only mounted when she considered the Governor’s words from May 6: “The only safe way you can go about providing this service while ensuring we’re doing everything possible to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, would be for both the person providing the service and the customer, wearing face masks.”

Debbie wanted more clarity, so she reached out to KCBD’s Investigates Team.

So, to address her concerns, and those of so many other confused business owners, we called the TDLR and asked the question on June 25, “How should business owners interpret the Governor’s statement made on May 6?”

“We don’t have the legal authority right now to be able to require someone to wear a mask when they are in a TDLR licensed establishment,” said Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the TDLR.

And then there was the question of how Lubbock officials would interpret the “order”. Especially after Mayor Pope said, “Wear your damn masks,” on June 24.

Lubbock City Manager Jarrertt Atkinson, is charged with interpreting the orders from Austin. Tasked with weeding through the clutter, and trying to help council members understand what can and cannot be enforced.

“There is language in Executive Order 28 and 26 as well, and it states that no jurisdiction can impose a criminal or civil penalty for failure to wear a face covering,” Atkinson said.

So, the Investigates team went back to the Governor’s office with the question, “How can you make a mandate that has no teeth to it?”

Governor Abbott’s response was: “So, actually, the order that exists right now, it can have teeth. It depends upon the way that the local order is structured.”

“So, we operate under what that authority is or what’s set up in the Governor’s order, that’s expressly stated and I just quoted it word for word,” Atkinson said.

An executive order from the state, waiting on an executive order from the city, leaving business owners like Debbie Staudt exasperated.

“If you have to change the wording, change the wording. Make a decision one way or another,” Staudt said.

While we thought our interview with the governor would be the final word, we didn’t know what would happen two days later.

The governor changed his wording and gave the order some teeth: “We need to re-focus on slowing the spread, but this time, we want to do it without closing down Texas again. That is why today, I am issuing a face covering requirement for all counties with more than 20 COVID cases.”

It turns out that the change of one simple word gave the Governor’s order all the teeth it needed.

We turned again to Jarrett Atkinson, asking what, if anything, that word changed, ”I think it’s probably good, really in terms of it provides consistency. Whether you are in a city, a county, a metro, two cities that are side by side, this puts everybody on the same playing field. In that aspect, I think we were pleased to see it.”

But, what about Debbie? Did this help her?

“Relief. Was so excited about it,” Debbie said.

She said her mother’s advice paid off.

“It’s amazing how one word can change the interpretation of the minimum mandate that we have been following since May 8th.”

Now that a should has become a must, what happens if you don’t?

A first offense comes with a warning, which could either be written or verbal. A second violation may be punishable by a fine not to exceed $250, while any additional violations also face the same fine.

So, what’s the bottom line? Maybe it’s just common sense:

“I guess my comment to the public would be, ‘Please, it’s just simple, please. It’s not universal, you don’t wear masks in your home, your car, if you’re in your own household unit or anything to that effect. But, when you’re in close proximity to others, it’s not that hard, it’s not that hard, it’s not that much to ask, so please do,” Atkinson said.

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