HOUSTON – Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo signed an executive order Friday directing all businesses in the county that provide goods or services to the public to require customers and employees to wear masks and maintain social distancing guidelines beginning Monday.
Understandably, there are some questions about this. Here are answers to some the most pressing questions about the new order.
Question: When does the order go into effect and when does it end?
Hidalgo signed the order Friday and it will go into effect on Monday, June 22. It will be in effect until June 30 because that’s when Gov. Greg Abbott’s disaster declaration will end. Hidalgo said that she will ask the governor to extend the disaster declaration and on June 30, she will review whether the mask order should be extended as well.
Question: What are the rules of the order?
Per the order, all businesses that provide goods and services will be required to make sure customers and employees:
- Wear a mask or face covering
- Maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet (or 2 meters) from other customers and staff
- Prevent customers or employees who feel sick from coming into the businesses
Question: What are the exceptions to the order?
There are some exceptions to the order
- Children under the age of 10 are exempt from wearing a mask
- When consuming food or drink provided by a business (restaurants or bars)
- When doing so poses a greater mental or physical safety risk or security risk
- While in a building or activity that requires security surveillance or screening
- When exercising outside or engaging in physical activity outside
- While pumping gas or operating outdoor equipment
Question: What is the penalty for non-compliance with the order?
Per the executive order, business owners offering goods and services who do not enforce the provisions of the order — including ensuring all customers and employees wear masks, maintaining social distancing guidelines and turning away employees who feel sick — will face a $1,000 fine per violation.
Question: Will customers face fines?
No. Abbott made it clear that individuals will not be subject to fines or penalties for noncompliance, Hidalgo said. Only business owners offering goods and services will be subject to the penalty. Hidalgo stressed that while there will be penalties, the goal is to educate people as opposed to issuing fines.
Question: How should businesses enforce the order?
Local officials likened the order to the “no shoes, no shirt, no service” policy that most businesses already follow. They said to include “no mask” to that policy. As a result, if a customer refuses to wear a mask, the business is advised to treat them as though they are not wearing a shirt or shoes. They can take the steps they would normally take when such a customer tries to get service. This might include refusing service, asking the customer who refuses to comply to leave and calling the police.
Question: If a business refuses to follow these rules, what steps will the county take?
Hidalgo said the only way to avert a public health crisis is to enforce the order. She urged businesses that offer goods and services to comply as she feels if they don’t, they will hurt the community and the economy. She said while the priority is education, the governor has allowed enforceability of the order and a fine of $1,000 can be levied per violation. As a result, if a business refuses to comply for multiple days, they could face multiple fines.
“The requirement is that businesses develop and implement a plan (to comply with the order,” she said. “I’ve directed my team to seek guidance from the state. We will start with education and I hope we won’t have to go past that.”
Question: What is the message to customers who refuse to comply with the order?
“As always, this is about education,” she said. “I’m asking people to be adults about this. The idea is not to politicize this.”
Hidalgo, Turner and local health authorities said the evidence is clear that face-coverings prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Question: What about restaurants and bars?
Restaurants and bars are not exempt from the executive order issued Friday, Hidalgo said. However, when a customer is actually seated at a table and is either eating or drinking, they will not be asked to wear a mask. At other times, customers will be asked to comply with the order. Other provisions in the order like social distancing requirements and asking employees to stay home if they feel sick will be applicable to all restaurants and bars.
Question: How close is Harris County to moving to Level 1 on the COVID-19 Threat Level System?
At present, Harris County is at level 2 on the four-tiered threat level system, meaning there is an uncontrolled and significant spread of the virus in the community. Hidalgo said they look at data every day to see if the area is getting close to Level 1 which would mean there is a severe and uncontrolled spread of the virus.
Hidalgo said she is confident at present that the county is at Level 2 but the number of new cases, deaths and hospitalizations continue to rise and the risk remains.
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