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Coronavirus: Texas orders people to wear masks in public as governor changes course

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Harris County election clerk Nora Martinez, left, helps a voter, Monday, June 29, 2020, in Houston. Early voting for the Texas primary runoffs began Monday.
Harris County election clerk Nora Martinez, left, helps a voter, Monday, June 29, 2020, in Houston. Early voting for the Texas primary runoffs began Monday.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Thursday ordered face coverings must be worn in public across most of the state, a dramatic ramp-up of the Republican's efforts to control spiking numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and hospitalisations.

Abbott, who had pushed Texas' aggressive reopening of the state economy in May, had previously said the government could not order individuals to wear masks. His prior virus-related orders had undercut efforts by local governments to enforce mask requirements.

But faced with dramatically rising numbers of both newly confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus and hospitalisations, Abbott changed course with Thursday's mask order.

The order requires “all Texans to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth in public spaces in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases, with few exceptions," the governor's office said. Violators can be fined $250 (€222.50).

“We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast, there is little margin for error,” Abbott said.

Texas reported 7,915 newly confirmed cases, a slight dip after zooming past the 8,000 mark for the first time on Wednesday. The 7,382 hospitalisations means the state has more than quadrupled its numbers in that category since the end of May.

The true number of cases is likely much higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest that people can be infected and not feel sick.

The mask order takes effect on Friday and will cover most of the state's 254 counties and most of the population. Counties with fewer than 20 cases cover mostly rural areas and can apply for an exemption. Local authorities can also ban outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people.

There are exceptions for people who have a medical condition or disability, who are exercising outdoors, or who are participating in a religious service or voting. Texas this week began its monthlong early voting period for its primary elections.

The governor has said he doesn't want to roll back his previous orders to reopen the economy. But last week he moved to reclose bars and limit dine-in capacity in restaurants to 50%.

Political pressure

The order also applies to the Texas GOP Convention in Houston in two weeks, which is still going ahead. The event typically draws thousands of attendees.

Abbott has been under extreme pressure from both Democrats and Republicans on his reopening plans.

Democrats, most notably the leadership of the state's largest cities, have complained Abbott reopened Texas too quickly and have pointed to the record numbers of confirmed new cases and hospitalizations.

Conservative lawmakers battered the governor's early moves to combat the virus, including business, school and child-care closures and a stay-at-home order that expired in May.

In April, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called attempts by local governments in the Houston area to enforce mask orders with fines the “ultimate government overreach.”

“The move to mandate facemasks comes far too little, far too late for Governor Abbott," Texas Democratic Party Communications Director Abhi Rahman said. “Texans are still getting sick. Families are still suffering ... All of this could have been prevented if Governor Abbott had listened to experts and medical professionals in the first place."

The Texas Medical Association applauded the mask order.

“There is no question about it, face masks reduce the spread of COVID-19. They help protect the people wearing masks, and they help protect the people around them,” said the association's president, Dr. Diana L. Fite.

Abbott’s action comes as Texans approach the Fourth of July weekend, a time usually marked by gatherings and parties. Along the coast, local officials have said that access to many beaches will be restricted.

A lakeside concert by 1990s rapper Vanilla Ice that was set to take place outside of Austin on Friday was postponed after being criticised for planning to gather hundreds of fans in one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots.