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Harris County latest to mandate face masks, as criticism mounts that the requirement is "government overreach"

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The streets of downtown Houston during the coronavirus pandemic. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Harris County residents must cover their faces in public, county Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered Wednesday in a move that was met with swift criticism by GOP officials, who said the government mandate goes too far.

The measure comes as other local officials, such as those in Austin and Dallas, recently implemented similar measures to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends wearing cloth face coverings in areas like grocery stores where social distancing is more difficult to achieve.

“We have to use every tool in the toolbox,” Hidalgo said at a press conference. “I know this takes some getting used to, but these are all small yet powerful actions.”

The rules, which were first reported by the Houston Chronicle, will take effect Monday and last 30 days, Hidalgo said. Residents 10 and older will have to cover their nose and mouth using an acceptable garment, such as a bandana or homemade mask, when outside the home.

“We are not asking people to wear a medical mask or an N-95 mask,” Hidalgo said. “You can use an old t-shirt perhaps … the idea is just to cover your nose and mouth.”

Violations will be punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called Hidalgo’s order “the ultimate government overreach.”

“These kind of confused government policies fuel public anger — and rightfully so,” Patrick tweeted.

The Houston Police Officers’ Union called the rules “draconian,” adding that they are seeking an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on whether the measure is legally sound.

“Everyone should be wearing a mask in public, I wear 1 everyday,” HPOU president Joe Gamaldi said in a tweet. “But making not wearing 1 punishable by law, and asking our officers to enforce it, will do irreparable damage to our relationship with the community. We are already stretched too thin without having to enforce this.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, warned that Hidalgo’s order could “lead to unjust tyranny.”

“Should guidelines for masks in confined spaces be emphatically promoted? Absolutely,” Crenshaw tweeted. “But we will NEVER support 180 days in jail or $1,000 fine for not wearing a mask.”

Asked about the pushback, Hidalgo said, “There's always going to be a minority voice … people are entitled to their opinions.”

“This is not a police state,” she said. “But we needed to make clear it’s not a recommendation, it’s something we have to do for sake of our safety, our lives and our economy.”

Officials in nearby Montgomery County said they would not be issuing a mask order.

“I will not issue an order mandating the wearing of face coverings or mask in public places anywhere in Montgomery County. We will support your right to decide for yourself,” Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough said, according to Fox 26 Houston.

Similarly, in Galveston County, county Judge Mark Henry called the requirement unconstitutional. “While we encourage that you consider these recommendations for your own safety and the safety of others around you, I will not be mandating it because I believe it is unconstitutional to do so,” he said in a Facebook post.

The order will make exceptions for people with health or mental health conditions that would be exacerbated by wearing a covering and will make allowances for people driving, eating and exercising alone, Hidalgo said.