The Bell County Commissioners Court stepped back last week. Killeen Mayor Jose Segarra stepped up.
Two days after commissioners watered down County Judge David Blackburn’s directive that would have required employees and customers to wear face masks in commercial businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Segarra signed an order putting a face mask mandate into effect for the city of Killeen.
Segarra’s directive, which took effect just after midnight Thursday and extends through July 31, calls for the mandatory wearing of face masks by all people over the age of 10 in areas where social distancing is not possible. It also stipulates a $1,000-a-day fine for businesses that fail to comply with the directive.
Questions about the enforceability and legality of a face mask requirement are legitimate, but the current coronavirus pandemic that is surging in Bell County demands bold steps and strong leadership. County commissioners failed on both counts last week. Segarra did not.
Our elected officials have a responsibility to keep residents safe and protect them in public health emergencies.
For that very reason, Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday ordered that face masks be worn statewide, in all counties with more than 20 cases of the coronavirus. With cases in Texas rising at the rate of more than 5,000 each day, Abbott knew he had to do something to address the public health crisis sweeping the state.
Likewise, on the local level, with the Bell County Public Health District recording 840 cases of the coronavirus in June — including 128 new cases on June 30 — it’s fair to say the current situation fits the criteria of an emergency.
As cases spiked sharply the previous week, Blackburn took decisive action, calling for a face mask mandate, to take effect countywide on June 29. As with Segarra’s directive, violations carried a potential $1,000 fine.
However, the same day the directive went into effect, commissioners balked at following through with it. They expressed concerns about the mandate causing confusion and being unfair to businesses. The court eventually agreed to soften the wording, instead stating the county “strongly encourages” the wearing of masks by commercial businesses’ employees and patrons.
While commissioners were obviously trying to avoid putting business owners in a difficult spot, they ultimately did them — and their customers — a disservice.
Whether a face mask mandate is broadly enforceable or not, it sends a strong message to business owners and residents: This is a deadly situation, and it will take a countywide effort to bring it under control.
Furthermore, a mandate takes the pressure off individual businesses to require face masks and instead puts the responsibility on the county. That’s a level playing field.
Without an across-the-board mandate, businesses that require employees and customers to wear masks may lose some shoppers to competitors who do not have the mandate in place. That, in turn, might discourage some businesses from enforcing strict policies on face masks.
In the end, everybody loses — businesses, customers and the community at-large — if surges in virus cases cause public officials to restrict or close down businesses in response.
Segarra first started pitching the idea of a face mask mandate two weeks ago. He and Blackburn discussed the issue before the judge issued his countywide mandate on June 24.
But with the county mandate reduced to a strong suggestion, Segarra felt compelled to act on his own, as the city council had authorized him to do in a March 24 resolution.
With Killeen accounting for 485 of the county’s 1,228 coronavirus cases at the time, and that number rising quickly, Segarra was right to take decisive action.
In mandating the wearing of masks, the mayor took action to protect the health of the city’s most vulnerable populations, including older residents and those with health conditions.
It’s disappointing that Blackburn, who has served as city manager of both Killeen and Temple — the cities with the two highest totals for cases of the virus — was persuaded to back down from his original mandate.
It’s also discouraging that Killeen’s commissioner, John Driver, didn’t stand with the county judge in pushing for a strong face mask mandate.
Whether the commissioners were right in their assessment that the original directive was unworkable or unnecessary, their decision to back off from a mask mandate sent the message that they are not fully committed to stemming the spread of the virus — whether that is true or not.
The decision to soften the directive also gave the impression that politics came into play, or that pressure was brought to bear by business owners who stood to be impacted by the mandate — though that assertion was denied by more than one commissioner.
In the end, the decision to present a united front on a watered-down directive made it appear that the final vote was more about politics than practicality.
Now, of course, the commissioners court’s action has been rendered moot by the governor’s statewide mandate. Whether the revised county directive would have been as effective as Blackburn’s original mandate will not be known — at least for as long as the governor’s order is in effect.
Still, standing up and making a bold decision should count for something — and both Mayor Segarra and Gov. Abbott deserve credit for doing just that.
Killeen’s city council also is to be commended for granting the mayor the authority to issue directives regarding the city’s public health concerns — and for standing behind him once he took a strong stand, as council members did last week after Segarra issued the mask mandate.
Politics should not come into play when dealing with matters of public safety or public health.
Our elected officials must be willing to shoulder the responsibility of protecting residents from a dangerous health risk — even when some residents are not willing to protect themselves.
Such actions can be difficult, and they seldom involve taking the path of least resistance.
Kudos to Mayor Segarra — and to Gov. Abbott as well — for recognizing that what might be unpopular in some circles is sometimes necessary for the public good.
We all need to work together to turn back the pandemic that continues to take its toll on our nation, our state and our community.
At this point, half-measures and suggestions simply won’t get it done.