State of Texas: Mask orders avoid political tug of war

State of Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Businesses in some of the largest cities in Texas now face new local COVID-19 orders to require workers and customers to wear masks during the pandemic. The orders follow a move by leaders in Bexar County to make businesses require masks. Gov. Greg Abbott said the order did not contradict state public health orders.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued an order that starts Thursday and lasts until August 15. It says businesses must develop and display a health and safety policy that requires a face covering while on the premises.

“Austin businesses are great and many of them, if not most, have already done this. During this time, we will transition to a more direct order on masks, working with our business community so our whole city moves forward together and so that everyone can get prepared,” Adler’s statement reads.

There are some exceptions to the order. A mask is not required when:

  • You are alone in a single, separate space
  • You are among people of the same household
  • You are eating or drinking
  • You are outdoors engaging in an allowed activity with social distancing
  • Wearing a mask poses a safety or health risk

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on Wednesday issued an order mandating businesses to require employees and customers to wear face coverings when social distancing isn’t feasible. Businesses could face a $1,000 fine for failing to follow the order which is in effect through June 30.

“Judge Wolff’s order is not inconsistent with the Governor’s executive order,” a spokesman for Abbott said in a statement. “Our office urges officials and the public to adopt and follow the health protocols for businesses established by doctors that are available at open.texas.gov.”

During an interview with KWTX in Waco, Abbott said local leaders have always had the option of placing restrictions on businesses and that “Bexar County finally figured that out.”

The new Wednesday order comes one day after Gov. Abbott was sent a letter from several mayors of some of Texas’ biggest cities — asking for the authority to regulate the use of face coverings.

Along with Adler, mayors of Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Arlington, Plano and Grand Prairie signed a letter asking for a more comprehensive, applicable way to combat COVID-19 spread.

In a press conference that afternoon, Abbott said the spread in certain communities was the fault of people under 30 who visit bars or gather socially while ignoring safety guidelines.

“There have been pictures that I have seen and others have seen about these bar-type settings where clearly the standards are not being followed,” Abbott said on Tuesday.

Shelley Meyer, co-founder of ICONIC AUSTIN BRANDS, has required employees and customers to wear masks since reopening Wild About Music, Toy Joy, Yummi Joy, and Austin Rocks.

She said a local order would relieve some pressure from businesses that are caught in the middle.

“We’ve had some push back (requiring masks),” Meyer told KXAN. “We’ve had people claim their civil liberties were being violated. We’ve had people claim they’re compromised and can’t wear a mask. It’s been difficult.”

DACA ruling sets stage for immigration battle

Hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants are no longer facing an immediate threat of deportation. 

Texas Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar says hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants are safe — for now.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump Administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, known as DACA. 

“Is this a permanent victory? No. The President can still go back and redo this termination decision again,” says Cuellar.

Cuellar says that means it’s now up to Congress to permanently protect the young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children – which he says Senate Republicans will not support.

President Trump says he wants any immigration bill that includes DACA to also include funding for a border wall, but Democrats say the two issues should remain separate.

Texas Republican Congressman Michael McCaul says DACA and border security go hand-in-hand.

“Because we don’t want to have to continue to have another generation of DACA kids coming in,” says McCaul.

McCaul says, ultimately, all eyes are on the president to make the next move.

Black Caucus pushes for action before session

The Texas Legislative Black Caucus is hosting three regional town halls this week in response to the protests around the country, sparked by the death of George Floyd.

““Where would we be today without the religious faith-based protest of the Civil Rights Movement in the ’50s and the ’60s?” State Rep. James White said, adding that he is proud of today’s peaceful protesters exercising their constitutional right.

While some Democrats have urged Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special legislative session, other Democrats and Republicans say more work can be done now at the local level.

In the meantime, the Governor is continuing conversations with the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, Abbott’s office confirmed Thursday.

“I got a phone call from Governor Abbott inviting myself and Chair Dutton to a conversation to continue to dialogue,” Democratic State Rep. Nicole Collier said Wednesday night. “So I want you to know that what we’re doing is working, and that we are being your voice and making sure that we speak up for you.”

The next legislative session begins in January, but Republican Rep. White said local governments have the power to make change sooner.

“We have local governing entities. We have counties. We have our county sheriffs that could impact their budgets now as it relates to investigating incidents of deadly force use by law enforcement,” Rep. White said. “We have city councils that can redirect monies for training and in mental health and all that. So they can do that now.”

Others agreed that action at the local level is needed, including addressing the use of force in situations where officers fear for their own lives, Rep. Collier said.

“Why do they feel that they’re in danger when they come into a Black community? Should that be something that is trained… should they receive training on that?” Rep. Collier said during Wednesday’s town hall.

The representatives on Wednesday’s town hall also addressed whether police officers could be tested to gauge their racial sensitivity.

Democratic State Rep. Harold Dutton added that passing any type of bill at the state level is difficult.

“The legislature happens to be, as I call it, the place where good ideas go to die. Because, you know, we only pass, about one fourth of the bills that are filed,” Rep. Dutton said, adding that he hopes his colleagues will be able to support bipartisan measures come January.

“I think there’s a consciousness… that is a hope [that] is here today, and I hope is here come January… that we haven’t fallen back into, ‘Well, it’s not really that bad anymore,” Rep. Dutton said.

Plans in works to allow family visits to nursing homes

After months of isolation, advocates and families of nursing home residents are asking, “When can I see my loved one?”

After COVID-19 began to spread in vulnerable long-term care facilities across the state back in mid-March, Texas Health and Human Services (HHSC) officials restricted access to these homes for non-essential visitors, including family members.

One family member described the anguish she felt not getting to be by her mother’s side.

“My biggest concern is my mother being alone and spending her last weeks of life alone,” she said. “It feels like she’s in jail, and I’m so helpless.”

The state’s Long Term Care Ombudsman Patty Ducayet told KXAN, “We are reaching a kind of boiling point. Family members feel it has been too long, and I agree that residents are too isolated at this point.”

In mid-May, the federal government released guidelines for reopening long-term care facilities. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services outline the criteria that different facilities or states would need to meet in order to safely reopen, including:

  • Case status in community: a decline in the number of new cases, hospitalizations or deaths
  • Case status in the facility: absence of any new COVID-19 cases in the home
  • Adequate staffing
  • Access to adequate testing
  • Requiring residents and visitors wear a cloth face covering and maintain social distancing
  • Access to adequate personal protective equipment for staff
  • Local hospital capacity

The guidance also allows for states to implement these recommendations state-wide, regionally, or on a case-by-case basis with individual facilities.

Massachusetts became the first state to resume “socially distanced” visits for nursing home residents at the beginning of June.

Now, states like Oklahoma and Missouri have announced a “phased” approach to reopening nursing facilities. In Oklahoma, an executive order from their governor laid out three phases of reopening — with the first phase allowing visitors for residents who are near end-of-life or have psychological needs.

“We know that the state is working on a plan right now to allow some form of face-to-face visits.”

ALEXA SCHOEMAN, TEXAS DEPUTY LONG-TERM CARE OMBUDSMAN

In a Facebook video update on Wednesday, the Deputy State Long-term Care Ombudsman Alexa Schoeman said it is advocating for Texas to find a safe way to reopen homes.

“We know that the state is working on a plan right now to allow some form of face-to-face visits,” she said. “We understand many of you have been waiting 100-plus days to see your loved ones, and that is causing anxiety, stress and trauma.”

Schoeman said the Office of the Long-term Care Ombudsman would update families and residents as soon as they knew more about the state’s plan.

A spokesperson for HHSC could not confirm whether a reopening plan was in the works, but said, “Protecting the health and safety of the people residing in long-term care facilities we regulate, as well as the staff who work there and the surrounding community, is our top priority.”

They reiterated the current state requirements limiting visitors to essential personnel “who are providing critical assistance and have been properly screened.” That includes family members or friends of residents at the end of their life, according to the state’s emergency rules.

“HHSC also has encouraged facilities to implement a communication plan to help families, residents, and others stay informed and connected,” the spokesperson said.

Kevin Warren, President and CEO of the Texas Health Care Organization, said they’ve heard a “phase one” reopening plan is under review.

“There are smiles and interactions that have just been missing for months,” Warren said. “We want to see that happen — but at the same time, we’ve got to make sure it’s done sensibly and responsibly.”

He said there were still a lot of questions left to answer.

“Are we going to have to be testing families and visitors, and everyone who comes in? Is it going to be random testing? Do we have the supplies? What is testing going to look like for the residents in the building and the staff?”

He said the lag time in test results was also still a major challenge for nursing facilities’ ability to fight the spread of coronavirus.

“Now it’s the waiting game because there are only so many labs that are able to process these labs,” he said, noting some providers were waiting 7 to 10 days for results. “It becomes a basic math problem. You can’t fight what you can’t see, and they want to see the results so they can start to work on this.”

As of Wednesday, the state reported 4,900 confirmed coronavirus cases among nursing home residents, and 546 assisted living facility residents.

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