It’s official: Face masks are now a required accessory in Harris County for the next 30 days.
Monday marks the start of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s face mask-mandate, requiring the county’s 4.7 million residents to cover their faces at all times except when eating, exercising or drinking. Acceptable garments include a homemade mask, scarf, bandanna or handkerchief, but medical masks or N-95 respirators are not recommended because first responders and health care workers need them.
The new rules apply to residents 10 and older.
The mandate is not meant to be punitive: Though violating the order technically is punishable by a $1,000 fine, Houston police and Harris County deputies will err on the side of distributing masks to residents breaking the rules.
“Instead of a citation, police officers will give you a mask, or at least offer you one,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week. “So, it’s masks over citations. It’s all about education and awareness. We’re working to make sure that we are keeping people healthy, and it’s not about being punitive.”
EDUCATION NOT PUNISHMENT: Police, deputies to give masks, not citations to those who violate Hidalgo order
Need a face mask this week? Here’s where you can get one for free:
8 a.m.-1 p.m.: The Tejano Center, 2950 Broadway (while supplies last)
9 -10 a.m.: Carverdale Community Center, 9920 Porto Rico Road (while supplies last)
9-10 a.m.: Freed Park Community Center, 6186 Shadyvilla Lane (while supplies last)
9-10 a.m.: White Oak Conference Center, 7603 Antoine Drive (while supplies last)
9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.: Community Family Center, 7524 Avenue E (while supplies last)
11 a.m.: Mount Hebron Missionary Baptist Church, 7817 Calhoun Rd. (while supplies last)
1-4 p.m.: Rosewood Funeral Home, 17404 West Lake Houston Parkway (first 250 families)
9 a.m.: Fountain of Life Center, 14065 Main St. (while supplies last)
10 a.m.: Plaza Americas Mall, 7500 Bellaire Blvd (while supplies last)
12 p.m. to 2 p.m.: New Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, 9126 Jensen Dr. (first 100 cars)
12 p.m. to 2 p.m.: Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church, 7104 Homestead Road (first 100 cars)
12 p.m. to 2 p.m.: Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, 908 E. 32 1/2 St. (first 100 cars)
10-11 a.m.: Unity Bank, 2602 Blodgett St.
As Monday approached, residents scrambled to comply. Local organizations, lawmakers and even funeral homes started handing out thousands of free masks.
On Sunday, hundreds of Houstonians pulled their cars into a single file line out Unity National Bank on Blodgett Street, waiting patiently for an envelope of free masks.
The event — put on by the Riverside and Washington Terrace civic associations,, as well as other third ward organizations — was scheduled to start at 10 a.m. People started lining up at 8 a.m.
When organizers and volunteers arrived at 9 a.m. to find the line backing up traffic, they quickly started handing out masks, two per person, said Tomaro Bell, president of the MacGregor Super Neighborhood, who helped organize the event.
By events end, they have given away more than 1,000.
“When the judge ordered the criminalization of those without masks, we knew for our community this is going to be a trying thing,” Bell said. “In our neighborhood, we have a lot of low income families … We were really concerned what people were going to do with their limited resources.”
Organizers were able to gve away so many masks, Bell said, because of donations from Council Member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz and Mattress Mack Jim McIngvale. Bell said they’ll host another event Sunday, thanks in part to a monetary donation from State Sen. Borris L. Miles, a Democrat.
Harris County Precinct 8 Constable Phil Sandlin also gave away free masks over the weekend. On Friday, he handed out 4,000 masks in Clear Lake and Pasadena that he personally purchased. To protect everyone’s health, the pick ups were drive thru-only.
State Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat, also set up a drive thru to hand out masks Saturday in southwest Houston. With the help of Gulfton volunteers, Wu’s drive thru focused on medical workers, seniors and the immuno-compromised.
“With the mandate in Harris County that face coverings must be worn in public set to go into effect Monday, it is especially important that masks are made available,” Wu said. “The goal is to make sure our community has access to the necessary resources to keep our residents safe.”
County residents who missed the many mask giveaways this weekend, however, have options this week.
In Atascocita, for instance, Lake Houston residents will be able to get their free masks from Rosewood Funeral Home on Monday. The funeral home plans to give away two N-95 respirators to the first 250 Lake Houston families that arrive between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Monday at its 17404 West Lake Houston Parkway location.
“As public health responders, we are always prepared for disaster and feel the need to help Lake Houston Area families prepare in the wake of Judge Hidalgo’s order for all residents to wear masks,” said Jess Fields, Sr., the funeral home’s owner and president. “That’s why we are dipping into our supplies to help families in our area.”
Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen, as well as the city of Houston, have announced free mask distribution events across Houston this week.
But while some rush to help residents comply with Hidalgo’s order, others are fighting against it.
FACE MASK MANDATE: Houstonians, public officials weigh in
The Houston Police Officers' Union were quick to jump in after Hidalgo announced the mandate last week, called the order "draconian" in a letter to the community. The union said it would seek counsel from the Texas Attorney General's Office on the fine’s legality.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also weighed in, calling the order “the ultimate government overreach.”
Hidalgo has even been sued over the mandate. Houston conservative power broker Steve Hotze filed the lawsuit Thursday, alleging that the order violates the Texas Constitution and that Hidalgo can’t issue more restrictive orders than Gov. Greg Abbott, who has not mandated masks in public.
State law gives the county judge “broad authority” during a disaster, the county attorney’s office has said.
GOP activist sues Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo over coronavirus mask mandate
Hotze, who also sued Hidalgo over her stay-at-home order, organized a protest against the mask order last week.
Other counties in the region, including Montgomery, Galveston and Fort Bend, are not issuing mask mandates for their residents.
“While I am not issuing a specific order, I strongly recommend our residents wear masks in public to stop the spread of the virus, protect the most vulnerable in our community, and reopen the economy,” said KP George, Fort Bend County Judge, in a statement last week. “The quickest and easiest way we can prevent more people from getting sick and reopen business is for everyone to wear a cloth mask in public.”