AUSTIN—This week, citizens in Travis County are facing life under a strict new rule: wear a mask when going out in public, or potentially be fined up to $1,000 or even thrown in jail for up to six months.

On Monday, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced their new countywide stay-at-home order, an updated version of their previous one that began on March 24.

Their new order extends to May 8 and still restricts travel to “essential only,” bans any gatherings of any number outside a single household, and prohibits “non-essential” businesses from operating. But now the stay-at-home order also requires everyone over the age of 10 to wear a mask when going out in public for “essential work or activities.”

“The order now says that if you go outside, you need to put on a face covering,” said Mayor Adler.

Judge Eckhardt added the order imposes “civil and criminal consequences to a failure to adapt to these new behaviors,” and Adler encouraged citizens to report on one another if they see violations.

Numerous citizens reacted to the officials’ social media posts about the order.

“So now you are trying to control what people wear, by requiring face masks?? How does government code [chapter] 418 apply there?” one citizen commented. “It states control ingress and egress and the movement of people. I see nothing that you have the authority to dictate what someone wears!”

In addition to others who questioned if the officials had the constitutional authority to enact such a mandate, several also questioned if there’s truly evidence to support their extended and tightened lockdowns.

“Where is the justification to extend it? Data shows new cases have peaked and are flattening. Face covers weren’t required before, why the change?” one citizen wrote.

“The models are showing no shortage of ICU beds and ventilators in the county or the state. The numbers show that the curve is flattening,” another wrote. “The stated goal of social distancing was to [ensure] no shortage of hospital staff, beds and ventilators. We accomplished that. Why masks NOW?”

“The stay at home was to prevent hospital overcrowding. [You] just said it has peaked and slowed so you are now wanting to extend to wait out the virus? That won’t work,” another added. “Eventually we will open and people will still get this. We can’t be under house arrest in perpetuity.”

Eckhardt and Adler’s order requires only fabric masks, not medical-grade, but there is currently disagreement among scientists and medical professionals if masks, especially fabric, make a substantial difference in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Even the World Health Organization wrote this month that “there is currently no evidence that wearing a mask (whether medical or other types) by healthy persons in the wider community setting, including universal community masking, can prevent them from infection with respiratory viruses, including COVID-19.”

“Unnecessary and ill-informed government overreach,” one citizen tweeted about the Travis County order. “We’re shutting down the economy and ruining people’s lives for a number of deaths that will be lower than [an] average year of traffic fatalities.”

“Why don’t you do something that’s actually helpful, and start planning how to get people back to work, schools open, and protecting people’s livelihoods?!” another said.

Of the 1.27 million people in Travis County, there are currently 856 confirmed cases of coronavirus, or roughly 0.06 percent of the population. Eleven have tragically died.

From 2017 to 2018, 49 Travis County citizens died from the flu.

Across the state of 29 million Texans, there are currently 318 coronavirus deaths. This flu season, 6,384 Texans died from influenza and pneumonia.

Meanwhile, 22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past four weeks. In Austin alone, city officials project that 261,000 citizens—a quarter of all Austin workers—will lose their jobs during the coronavirus crisis.

Jacob Asmussen

Jacob Asmussen is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard. He attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and in 2017 earned a double major in public relations and piano performance.

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