As it turned out, the answer for Texas counties that wanted to require people to wear face masks in public was there all along. All they needed to do was read between the lines and decipher Gov. Greg Abbott's winks, nods and vague gestures.
On Wednesday morning, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued an order that tried to thread a fine needle. The order required businesses in the county to require their customers and staff to wear masks when they're on the premises. Any business that failed to do so could be subject to a $1,000 fine. What the order didn't do, though, was outline any penalties for customers who refused to wear masks.
In a press conference Wednesday, Wolff acknowledged the county was trying to find a backdoor around Abbott's statewide executive order, which bars counties from enacting mask requirements beyond those laid out in the statewide order.
"The action that I'm taking today may be pushing the legal bounds a little bit, but our attorneys believe we can defend this order in court," he said.
As it turned out, they wouldn't need to. On Wednesday afternoon, Abbott gave the county order his blessing and congratulated officials there on cracking his clever riddle.
"There has been a plan in place all along," Abbott told KWTX. "All that was needed was for local officials to actually read the plan that was issued by the state of Texas."
Evidently the solution wasn't as obvious as Abbott let on, because it's created a drawn-out battle between city and county officials across the state who wanted to enact face mask requirements in order to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and state officials who wouldn't allow it.
In April, Dallas County rolled out an executive order requiring anyone 2 years of age or older to wear a mask when going into an essential business or riding public transportation. Then, in May, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to county officials warning them that the order was unlawful because Abbott's statewide order superseded it.
On Wednesday afternoon, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said the county may soon follow Bexar County's lead.
“I’m pleased that the governor has changed his mind," Jenkins said. "I’m asking our county lawyers and business leaders to look at this and plan to make a proposal for the commissioner’s court to look at very soon.”
Since the pandemic reached North Texas in March, 2,029 Texans have died of the novel coronavirus, according to Texas Health and Human Services.