Central Texans had better have their masks ready.

Starting Monday, face coverings will be required in all local businesses — for patrons as well as employees.

Bell County Judge David Blackburn announced the mandate on Wednesday, in reaction to a dramatic surge in new cases of the coronavirus in the county.

As of June 18, the county had reported 699 confirmed cases of the virus. On Friday, that total had soared to 1,022 — a jump of more than 320 cases in eight days.

Also concerning is the number of coronavirus-related deaths in the county, which jumped from four on May 31 to 12 on Thursday.

Given the rapid spread of the virus, Blackburn was right to order the mask mandate.

But on Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott went even further, ordering bars to close again and requiring restaurants to scale back their capacity to 50%, effective Monday.

Abbott had reason to sound the alarm.

By the middle of last week, Texas was seeing more than 5,000 new cases a day and the number of deaths was rising at the rate of more than 20 a day, with a 47-death increase on Thursday. Moreover, Texas’ infection rate rose to nearly 12% — the highest it had been since the governor imposed a statewide shutdown in late April.

Certainly, a spike in cases was to be expected. When Abbott announced plans to gradually reopen the state’s economy after more than a month of coronavirus-related restrictions, health officials warned the increased opportunity for human contact would raise the risk of infection.

For the first few weeks, everything went fairly well, with Bell County coronavirus cases increasing at a rate of eight to 10 a day. But by the middle of June, with more businesses reopening and others increasing their customer capacity, the wheels started to come off.

Was Abbott wrong to attempt to reopen the state while the virus’ spread was still on the upswing across the state?

Perhaps. But a bigger problem seems to be residents’ lack of compliance with health officials’ recommended precautions.

Public health experts have stressed three important safeguards: social distancing, hand-washing and the wearing of face masks.

And while the vast majority of employees at retail businesses, grocery stores and restaurants have followed through on the facemask recommendation, a considerable portion of their customers have not.

Granted, the level of compliance varies from one business to another, but the lack of mask-wearing and violations of the recommended 6-foot social-distancing standard have been concerning.

The Killeen Independent School District, in trying to develop a strategy to resume instruction for the fall semester, conducted an online survey for district parents and instructors between June 18 and 22.

Nearly 23,000 people took the survey, and about 70% of the respondents said they didn’t think local residents are taking the virus threat seriously.

That may very well summarize the problem our community and state is dealing with now.

We’ve all seen the effects of the recent statewide shutdown: Stores and restaurants shuttered, schools closed, dentists’ and doctors’ practices shut down and movie theaters dark. And worse yet, thousands of local employees furloughed or laid off.

That should have made us all even more vigilant about taking the proper health precautions once these venues started reopening.

But in far too many cases, people acted as if the danger had passed — when in reality, the increased opportunities for exposure actually increased the risk.

As Bell County’s infection numbers soared last week, Public Health District Director Amanda Robison-Chadwell said, “You should assume anyone around you may have it.”

That’s sobering advice, and we should all respond accordingly.

Like it or not, that includes wearing a mask whenever we are in public places — and especially in close proximity to others.

Many local residents may consider the mandate to wear a mask to be too intrusive. Some may object that masks are uncomfortable and inconvenient. But wearing one not only offers some degree of personal protection against the virus; it also protects those around us, and that is crucial in slowing the virus’ spread.

During World War II, Americans were asked to make major sacrifices. Food was rationed, the supply of rubber and copper was severely limited. Many consumer items were simply not available. But Americans overwhelmingly accepted these sacrifices because they knew they were crucial to the nation’s war effort.

It should be obvious to anyone who has been following the coronavirus infection statistics of late that we are in battle whose outcome will determine the future path our nation, possibly for years to come.

Against this backdrop, we can’t afford to be anything less than vigilant about hygiene, social distancing, avoiding large crowds when possible — and yes, wearing masks.

To be blunt: This is on us.

How we respond now will determine what our community and our state look like over the coming months.

If we fail to do what is required of us to help prevent the spread of this deadly virus, we will bear a large share of the responsibility when more drastic steps are taken by our local and state officials.

When stores must again close their doors and dine-in service at restaurants is curtailed, it will be on us. When we can no longer see our dentist or family doctor because their clinics have been forced to close, it will be on us. When our churches and schools remain closed far into the autumn months because the virus is still at dangerous levels, it will be on us.

We’ve all heard the warnings. We’ve all seen the evidence.

Let’s all agree to do our part — both individually and collectively — to slow the spread of this deadly virus.

We can do this. We must do this.

lt starts by simply putting on our masks.

dmiller@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7543

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