BASTROP COUNTY, Texas - Throughout Bastrop County, at stores that are still open, you’ll see people going in and out wearing a mask. A county-wide order making it mandatory in public places was issued on April 9. However, there are some who don’t wear one because getting a mask is still difficult.
Enforcement of the order is also a dilemma.
“Maybe write you a ticket that’s it, no, no going to jail we don’t need people in jail,” said Bastrop resident Joyce Rees.
The order requires the wearing of a mask when entering all public buildings, like the county clerk’s office. They also must be worn when entering an office or store. Employees and staff of open businesses must wear a mask. The rule also applies to parking lots and even walking on the sidewalk, if proper social distancing cannot be maintained, a key part of the order.
County Judge Paul Pape spoke by phone about why the county hasn’t been more aggressive in enforcing the rule.
“I just discussed it with our Mayors and with my Sheriff, and we do not want to be writing citations to people who do not comply with this order what we want to do is everybody to voluntarily comply,” said Pape. "I will say this to you, you would not want to walk into one of our big box stores today without a mask on because you will be judged by the two or 300 people who are in there with masks and the look in your their eyes will tell you, you’re out of order you’re not complying and they don’t appreciate you being in there without some protection."
A hotspot for the virus, and non-compliance, is around Elgin. That may be the first area to experience a targeted enforcement strategy.
“We are contemplating the proper way forward to cite them for their failure to comply and to be able to prosecute those who recite, we are not going to put our deputies in law-enforcement personnel out they’re issuing tickets fruitlessly or meaninglessly, this is not a game this is serious, If we issue a ticket it’s because we intend to prosecute that ticket,” said Pape.
It’s not known when an enforcement action would take place. The disaster declaration by the county makes it a Class B misdemeanor. Fines can range from $500-$1,000 as well as up to 180 days in jail.
There is still a lot of gray area in all this. Sheriff Maurice Cook said in the way he interprets the order, it is possible someone could go into a store with a mask on, and then lower their mask, as long as they maintain proper distance between other people. According to the Sheriff, he would like to see the order simplified and made more black and white as to what people can and cannot do.
If and when an enforcement action takes place, law enforcement officers are expected to use their own discretion. Scenarios that could take place would most likely start first with a warning and an explanation as to why masks are needed to help stop COVID-19. Tickets would then be given to those who refuse to comply and those who are repeat offenders.
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There are some who believe the mask order in Bastrop County could be used as a model for the state, linking everyone to a uniform rule.
“I wish it were a standard for the state, there wouldn’t be any discrepancies as to have face coverings, everyone would feel a little better,” said Rachel Eddy.
Don Eddy also believes a more uniformed approach would help. “What’s so hard about making it mandatory, you must have a mask if you’re outside, period,” he said.
Pape said he has had discussions with the Attorney General’s office about the Bastrop County Mask Order. He doesn’t believe what they’re doing there would necessarily work statewide.
“There are still some counties out in West Texas and lower West Texas that don’t have any reported cases of COVID-19, it might be a little bit of a reach in those communities to ask all those folks to put on a mask, all the time, because you probably couldn’t justify it,” said Pape.
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