Travis County health officials: Face masks need to become part of culture to reopen society

Wearing cloth face coverings over the nose and mouth when performing most activities away from home has evolved from a recommendation into a legal obligation under new coronavirus mitigation orders issues by Austin-Travis County officials on April 13.

Now mandatory, face masks combined with social distancing measures will become part of the new normal as officials weigh options in reopening society from a near complete shutdown due to the coronavirus, top local health officials said during an April 14 news conference.

Austin-Travis County interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott acknowledged it will take time for residents to become comfortable wearing face coverings, but that the act is a crucial step in beginning to restore normalcy in Austin and across the globe while the world works toward developing a cure or vaccine for the highly contagious upper-respiratory disease.

“Over time, [wearing face masks] is going to become part of our culture, at least in the short and immediate terms,” Escott said. “Combined with social distancing, it gives us a greater chance to start opening the world back up a little bit. ... The requirement for facial coverings is likely to be a longstanding requirement.”

Escott emphasized there are no realistic expectations of completely opening society back up any time soon. However, officials are discussing a slow and measured approach, but community embrace of face masks and social distancing is crucial to that strategy, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said.

“We’re going to have a better chance [of beginning to allow more physical activity and interaction] if we have adopted the culture of face coverings now,” Adler said

Face masks are not meant to protect the wearer from contracting the illness but to prevent the wearer from spreading it, officials said. Adler said wearing one is a selfless act, but that not wearing one can carry a criminal penalty; however, Adler, Escott and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt all echoed the same sentiment: self-policing and community compliance are key to making this order effective.

The orders specify that face coverings must be worn by everyone over the age of 10 when in a public building, using public transportation or rideshares, pumping gas and while outside when 6 feet of social distancing cannot be maintained. Masks are not required when eating or when wearing one would pose a health, safety or security risk.

Escott said the mask mandate comes as new evidence has shown that those carrying the disease are most infectious early on when they are showing no symptoms. Escott said had officials known that early on, face masks would have been required earlier.

The mandate came in the same April 13 order that extended Austin-Travis County’s shelter-in-place order through May 8. Adler said April 8 that models out of The University of Texas showed the area could experience its peak from mid-May into early June. During the April 14 press conference, Escott retracted any predictions of a “peak” since the community’s ability to social distance and remain vigilant about face masks would impact any peak.

For those in need of masks, they can be made with household items. Celebrity Austinite Matthew McConaughey posted a video on social media, as Bobby Bandito, his coronavirus-fighting alter-ego, explaining how to make a face mask at home. Community Impact Newspaper has also published a face mask-making guide.

By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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