Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued a new executive order Wednesday that mandates face coverings for the general public and directs businesses to require employees and customers to wear them in situations where social distancing is not feasible.

The order requires all “commercial entities” in Bexar County to implement a health and safety policy that includes mandatory face coverings in situations involving close contact with others. Failure to implement the policy by Monday could result in a fine up to $1,000, according to the order.

Wolff’s order, which comes amid a surge in positive coronavirus cases and patients hospitalized with COVID-19, followed an order from Gov. Greg Abbott, who said in June that local jurisdictions could not fine or jail people for not wearing a face covering. Read Wolff’s order here.

“Judge Wolff’s order is not inconsistent with the Governor’s executive order,” John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, told the Texas Tribune. “Our office urges officials and the public to adopt and follow the health protocols for businesses established by doctors” that are available online.

Under the new order, an individual couldn’t be fined for failure to wear a mask, but businesses can be penalized for failing to implement face-covering policies. Though the County order is “pushing the legal bounds” against the state order, Bexar County attorneys say they can defend it in court, Wolff said at a news conference.

“We cannot rely on the state to do what needs to be done,” said Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales, who joined Wolff at the news conference.

In an interview with KWTX-TV in Waco, Abbott said Wolff has “finally figured” out what locals can do with masks under statewide order: “Government cannot require individuals to wear masks. However, pursuant to my plan, local governments can require stores and business to require masks.”

“Local governments can require stores and business to require masks. That’s what was authorized in my plan,” Abbott added. “Businesses … they’ve always had the opportunity and the ability, just like they can require people to wear shoes and shirts, these businesses can require people to wear face masks if they come into their businesses. Now local officials are just now realizing that that was authorized.”

State Democrats took issue with Abbott’s lack of clarity.

“If only the Governor had been clear all along that his executive order was a riddle for counties and cities to solve,” said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin) in an email to the Rivard Report. “Earlier today, I urged him to unshackle local leaders by restoring their authority to set rules essential to protecting public health; I hope he continues on this path.”

Businesses affected by the order include grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, and other places that provide goods and services to the general public. H-E-B, which had not been requiring masks to be worn by shoppers, said its local stores would begin making face coverings mandatory as of Monday. In recent days, an online petition gathered more than 461,000 signatures asking the grocery store chain to require shoppers to wear masks.

“H-E-B has worked closely with Judge Wolff and we appreciate his hard work and dedication in keeping the health and safety of Bexar County residents a top priority,” the grocery company said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“In collaboration with the local order and our government officials, effective Monday, June 22, H-E-B stores in Bexar County will require masks or facial coverings to be used by all customers. The CDC and State health officials strongly support the use of facial coverings in public as a proven way to slow the spread of COVID-19. Throughout the COVID crisis, H-E-B has worked closely with the Governor and his staff and we appreciate the collaborative work and advocacy to help keep Texans safe.”

San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez called the mask requirement “the right thing to do” given the city’s recent increase in coronavirus cases, adding that many businesses support Wolff’s move.

“Right now, when our economy seems to be going up, to have our legs cut out under us again and have another shutdown would be incredibly difficult to recover from,” he said. “While [a mask] is not most wonderful fashion piece, it’s the smartest fashion piece to wear right now to help slow the spread of COVID.

“… I’ve talked to more than a handful of businesses over the last few days, and they were lamenting that they didn’t have full ability to require a mask, so as a whole they think [Wolff’s order] is a good idea – and ultimately this will help with consumer confidence, too. We want to have people be able to come back out and spend money, and this will be a step toward consumer confidence.”

Any peace officer in Bexar County can enforce the face mask mandate, but Sheriff Javier Salazar stressed that no one would be put in jail for violating the rule.

“We’ll be issuing warnings at first,” he said. “We’re just trying to keep our community safe.”

Salazar said that alhough the mask mandate may seem “drastic to some,” he would much rather be safer than sorry. “I’m not willing to take the gamble,” said Salazar, whose office has seen the death of a detention deputy after he tested positive for the virus.

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Mayor Ron Nirenberg joined eight other Texas mayors Tuesday in asking the governor for the authority to mandate face masks in their cities. The governor refused in a press conference that same day.

“I make clear on a daily basis around the entire state of Texas that wearing a mask is very important, and local officials send that message,” he said. “Putting people in jail, however, is the wrong approach for this thing.”

The Bexar County order applies to all municipalities within its boundaries, and Nirenberg updated his emergency declaration by adding a mask requirement supporting the County’s. 

County commissioners voted to extend Wolff’s emergency powers at their meeting Tuesday, which means Wolff does not need to get their approval on executive orders.

“Our work is not over,” Nirenberg said. “This is not a fight that we can let up on.”

The City’s 311 call center and the Metro Health hotline were experiencing high call volumes for questions about testing and the County’s new executive order, a City spokeswoman said Wednesday morning. For information about testing, residents may visit covid19.sanantonio.gov or call 210-207-5779. For questions about the County’s order, call 210-335-2626.

Staff writer Jackie Wang contributed to this article.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com