A growing number of sheriffs in Texas say they are refusing to follow a recent executive order requiring masks in public. Governor Greg Abbott’s mandate aims to slow the spread of coronavirus, as cases in the state soared past 200,000 on Tuesday.
Police officials in at least nine counties — including Denton, Houston, Montgomery, Gillespie, Upshur, Kerr, Gregg, Nacogdoches and Panola — said they will not impose the ruling with verbal or written citations. Some counties cited staffing issues, while others said the language in the order makes it impossible to police.
Abbott, a Republican who had previously relaxed coronavirus lockdown measures and did not encourage the use of face masks, reversed his course last week to make masks mandatory statewide and limit gatherings of more than 10 people. Cases have exploded across Texas in recent weeks, pushing hospital staff to their limits.
The order states that authorities can fine repeat offenders up to $250, but says offenders cannot be detained or jailed. Several counties said this language makes the rule nearly impossible to enforce, because stopping people could be seen as detaining.
After voicing his concerns with local media, Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree wrote on Facebook on Friday that people are “mad” at him for refusing to comply with the mandate.
“The order is not a law, there is no requirement that any police officer enforce it, and it’s unenforceable,” Murphree wrote. “We can’t spend our time running from place to place for calls about mask we can really do nothing about.”
At the same time, a Denton resident launched a Change.org petition calling for Murphree’s resignation and removal, which has gained over 4,500 signatures.
Denton is the largest country in the state that has publicly said it does not plan to follow the order. Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi tweeted that it should not be the job of law enforcement to tell people to wear masks. “Everyone needs to wear a mask, but don’t put us in this position,” he tweeted, calling the order “draconian.”
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s office said it would take “NO action” to demand masks, arguing that the order does not allow law enforcement to detain, arrest or confine in order to enforce it. “This language strips law enforcement of the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law,” the office wrote on Facebook on Saturday.
Several counties echoed the sentiment, saying that the language in the order made it unenforceable by officers.