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Growing Number of Texas Sheriffs Refuse to Enforce Governor’s Face-Mask Requirement

A police officer walks away from local residents protesting closed beaches on the 4th of July amid the coronavirus outbreak in Galveston, Texas, July 4, 2020. (Adrees Latif/Reuters )

A growing number of Texas sheriffs are announcing that they will not enforce Governor Greg Abbott’s new requirement that residents wear a face mask in public, with some questioning whether the executive order is constitutional.

Law-enforcement officials in at least nine counties have said they will not issue citations for those who flout the governor’s order mandating face masks for residents in counties with 20 or more coronavirus cases. All of the counties in question — Denton, Houston, Montgomery, Gillespie, Upshur, Kerr, Gregg, Nacogdoches, and Panola — have more than 20 positive cases of the virus.

Abbott, a Republican, issued the mask requirement on Thursday as coronavirus cases spiked across the state. Repeat offenders may be fined up to $250 but may not be detained or jailed.

Coronavirus cases in Texas rose past 200,000 on Tuesday, threatening to overwhelm hospitals in several hard-hit areas. Abbott reopened much of the state’s economy in recent weeks but has since reimposed some restrictions as cases of the virus increased, including ordering bars to once again shutter temporarily.

The Kerr County Sheriff’s Office said Monday that the mask requirement may be “unconstitutional” because it imposes the restriction on some but not others, like poll workers and those attending church services, who are exempt, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

Other sheriff’s offices, including Panola and Nacogdoches counties, have said they lack the staffing and resources to enforce the order, and the Smith County sheriff’s office said it will “strongly encourage voluntary compliance.”

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s offices of Montgomery, Kerr, Gillespie, and Upsurge counties expressed concern about the order’s language prohibiting detaining those who do not wear a mask, saying that their officers are hampered in stopping people for neglecting to wear a face covering because that could be seen as detaining them.

Sheriff Tracy Murphree of Denton County also complained about the wording of Abbott’s order and said that while he himself plans to wear a mask, his office’s deputies will not enforce the requirement.

“His order does not direct me but gives me permission. I’m complying by not enforcing it. If I can’t detain anyone for this, I can’t write them a ticket. I can’t even stop and talk to them,” Murphree told the Denton Record-Chronicle.

“I don’t have the time or manpower to worry about whether people are wearing masks or not,” Murphree said Thursday. “I believe the Constitution trumps everything, and I believe in personal responsibility.”

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