For the second time in two weeks, a North Texas county decided against mandating face masks, choosing instead to encourage residents to voluntarily wear face coverings and take other precautions where appropriate to help prevent the spread of the Chinese coronavirus.

At Tuesday’s Denton County Commissioners Court meeting, officials acknowledged COVID-19 cases are on the rise locally. But the all-Republican court agreed the data still does not warrant burdening businesses with orders to require masks.

“We as a county are not out of the woods, and we are asking the public to wear masks,” said County Judge Andy Eads. “We are encouraging people to comply with social distancing.”

“It is much more than wearing a mask,” Eads said, echoing statements he made last week when commissioners also declined to impose a mask mandate on local businesses.

He urged residents to use care during all social interactions, both personal and professional, and said businesses can use a “free-market” approach of implementing their own policies:

“To the people who have been advocating for masks, I would just like to say that we hear you, and we agree with you. It’s how do we get there. … We are encouraging people to do the right thing, which is to wear masks, and to trade at businesses that operate in that safe manner.”

Eads added the county is kicking off an aggressive marketing campaign this week, promoting mask-wearing and other public health precautions.

“It boils down to social responsibility versus individual liberty,” said Commissioner Dianne Edmondson.

“I cannot at this time support a mask mandate for businesses,” Edmondson said. “But I earnestly implore my fellow Denton County residents to willingly choose to wear a mask and practice social distancing when in public, unless you have a reason for not wearing a mask.”

“As free, responsible individuals, we can choose to patronize businesses whose mask policies match our own,” she added.

“I personally wear my mask every day,” said Commissioner Bobbie Mitchell. “And I would recommend that people wear masks, but I cannot require you to wear it because of your own personal liberty.”

Mitchell encouraged every citizen who can wear a mask to do so, and recommended businesses set their own health plans instead of the county mandating policies.

“We have a responsibility to protect each other,” Mitchell said. “In protecting yourself, you protect others.”

“Everybody can come up with an exclusion [of] why they cannot wear a mask,” she added. “Why put something on the books to mandate it when we can’t enforce it?”

“We have to be realistic about our [enforcement] ability,” said Commissioner Hugh Coleman. “We should never enact something we don’t have the power to do or the authority to enforce.”

“We should encourage people to cooperate with the mandates of public health,” he added.

Eads noted that Sheriff Tracy Murphree said his office would not be enforcing a mask mandate as the public enters county buildings.

Commissioner Ron Marchant urged municipalities to address their specific circumstances with local solutions rather than a countywide mandate.

“They know their community,” Marchant said.

He cited the city of Lewisville’s new “Mask Up” awareness campaign, which encourages  residents to wear a face covering in public to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and uses the tagline “My mask protects you; Your mask protects me.”

Taking the opposite approach, the city of Denton chose instead to mandate mask-wearing. On Friday, the city passed an order forcing local businesses to require employees and customers to wear face coverings, and set up a snitch line for residents to report potentially noncompliant companies to authorities starting Thursday.

Denton County Public Health Director Dr. Matt Richardson told commissioners Tuesday that local coronavirus case counts are up, partly due to increased testing and partly because of higher positivity rates.

“We’re trending the wrong direction,” Richardson said.

He said the hospitalization rate has also gone up, but added that “hospitals are not overrun with COVID-19 patients.” As of Tuesday, the county reported 49 hospital beds occupied by virus patients, up from a low of 12 earlier in the month but representing just 6 percent of bed capacity.

He said the county’s current goal is to mitigate community outbreaks before they happen.

“We need to be focusing on what we can do to stem the tide prior to a vaccine,” he said. “We are trying to get herd immunity. Without a vaccine, we can’t get herd immunity.”

“There’s no question the science confirms that face coverings do prevent transmission, especially as many people are asymptomatic,” Richardson added. “We’re asking everyone to cover their nose and mouth to protect the rest of us.”

Denton County resident Kurt Hyde said during public comments that he is concerned the county may overreact to incomplete or misleading data, adding he’s been trying to “get the facts” as commissioners recommend, but there’s been a lack of cooperation from the Denton County Health Department in providing the statistics he’s requested.

“Do not vote away our constitutional rights until you get those numbers,” Hyde said.

Hyde also questioned the state’s “inflationary technique” of allowing local health departments to report “probable” cases in their total case counts.

Richardson said Denton County does not include probable cases or positive antibody tests in its daily case counts, only cases confirmed by the “gold standard” PCR viral test.

He also said fatalities are not attributed to the virus unless confirmed; suspected COVID-19 deaths are reported to state for investigation. In Denton County, 37 people—1.35 percent of confirmed cases—have died due to the virus.

Eads said he appreciated the public reaching out to county officials and asking questions.

The public health director wanted commissioners to impose a countywide mask mandate on local businesses, as neighboring Dallas and Tarrant counties have done in the past two weeks.

Responding to increases in daily new cases reported since the end of May, counties and cities around the state began imposing mask mandates on businesses after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott gave local officials the go-ahead. Dallas’ Democrat County Judge Clay Jenkins is now calling on Abbott to issue a statewide mask mandate.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.