After nearly 16 months in office, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo knows that criticism comes with the job — and she has shown she can handle it.
But the backlash that Hidalgo has received since issuing an order that will require county residents to start wearing face coverings or masks in public beginning Monday is objectionable.
Her ability to lead in the public health crisis caused by COVID-19 is being baselessly questioned by partisans, some of whom seem to have issues with the authority of the 29-year-old Democrat as chief executive of Harris County.
Hidalgo on Wednesday announced a mandatory mask order for Harris County, under which everyone over the age of 10 will be required to wear a simple cloth face covering while out in public places, unless they’re, for example, exercising. The order takes effect Monday and will last 30 days. Violations could be punishable by fines of up to $1,000 — although Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner have said law enforcement officers will focus on distributing masks, not issuing citations.
Police, deputies to give masks to those who violate Hidalgo order
The move comes as the number of COVID-19 cases in the Houston area continues to rise, although hospitalization rates suggest the curve is flattening, thanks in part to social distancing measures. Gov. Greg Abbott plans to reopen the state economy over the coming weeks and will issue an executive order to that effect Monday.
Public health experts have warned that the Houston area isn’t ready for that yet. Hidalgo called for continued vigilance.
“If we get cocky, we get sloppy, we get right back to where we started, and all of the sacrifices people have been making have been in vain,” Hidalgo said. “Let’s not get complacent.”
Some Republicans were quick to take offense.
“These kind of confused government policies fuel public anger — and rightfully so,” tweeted Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the former radio and TV broadcaster. The Republican described the order as “ultimate government overreach.”
“I support common-sense encouragement of face coverings. But NOT a fine up to $1000 for not wearing one,” tweeted freshman Houston-area Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who is up for re-election this November. “There is no need to threaten citizens during a crisis.”
Harris County GOP Chairman Paul Simpson blasted Hidalgo’s decision as “unnecessary and excessive” and reflective of her “inexperience.” Hidalgo was a first-time candidate for public office when she narrowly defeated Republican incumbent Ed Emmett in 2018.
“Judge Hidalgo should focus on solutions that provide relief, help people get back on their feet and support Gov. Abbott’s effective decision-making and leadership, rather than issue her own misguided, irresponsible orders,” Simpson scolded.
And GOP activist Steve Hotze hopes to take Hidalgo to court: On Thursday, he filed a lawsuit alleging that the facial covering mandate violates the Texas Constitution and conflicts with Abbott’s directives on the subject. He also led a small rally against the mask order outside Harris County offices.
Presumably, all of these men would rather focus on the potential missteps of a local Democratic elected official than try to explain those of, say, President Donald Trump. The president on Thursday speculated, bizarrely, that Americans who confront “the Invisible Enemy” might be able to treat their symptoms by drinking or injecting cleaning products. (Just to be clear, doctors vehemently reject this hypothesis, as do the makers of Lysol. Trump on Friday maintained that he was being sarcastic.)
Community organizer Tony Diaz is among the Houstonians who’ve noticed that Texas Republicans have turned their sights on Hidalgo specifically.
“It seems they are miffed because she is moving with conviction, implementing a clear plan that will obviously keep people healthy,” he said, adding: “This is unlike President Trump’s actions combating the virus.”
And it was hard not to notice a certain troubling subtext to some criticism of Hidalgo on social media.
“I do think some of the vitriol has hints of sexism and potentially racism, too,” said political consultant Keir Murray. “When you see a caricature comparing her to Dora the Explorer — that is what it is on its face, right?”
He added that Hidalgo’s youth helps explain why she’s a convenient foil for Republicans who might otherwise be tasked with defending Trump: “I don’t think we see the kinds of criticism of young men in those roles, as we do of young women. There is a double standard there.”
Elsa Alcala, an attorney and longtime Harris County judge, argued that Republicans who are criticizing Hidalgo, rather than Trump, “are basing their decision on things other than intelligence, talent and capability.”
Hidalgo, the first Latina and woman to serve as Harris County judge, has been thrust into the role of leading the nation’s third-most populous county through a historic public health crisis.
She has demonstrated poise and sound judgment, so far. She was quick to close restaurants and bars after it became apparent that the deadly virus was spreading in the community and followed that up with a stay-home order that some of her suburban counterparts initially balked at — then joined. The goal was to avoid a situation like that in New York City, where more than 10,000 people have died.
Republicans should stick to the facts and pay more attention to the risk of misleading the general public about the progress we’ve made against the novel coronavirus. The mandatory mask order is unprecedented. But the pandemic we’ve been navigating for the past few months has imposed a new normal on all of us.
And Hidalgo is not the first local leader to require masks in public. Laredo became the first city in the country to adopt a mandatory mask policy, at the beginning of April. Since then, similar guidelines have been issued in Bexar, Dallas and Bastrop countes — the last of which is led by a Republican county judge, Paul Pape.
Hidalgo’s order isn’t “ultimate government overreach,” as Patrick put it. It’s a reasonable precaution to take, according to public health experts, and the type of order that other local leaders have lawfully issued while dealing with a disaster like this one.
Let’s get Harris County through the pandemic with as little loss of life as possible before ratcheting up the political rhetoric.