City officials gathered virtually July 2 to provide clarity on Georgetown’s new mask ordinance issued June 29.
On July 3 area businesses will be required to adopt and enforce health plans that require face coverings for both employees and customers. The Zoom event hosted by the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce aimed to provide data about why the ordinance was enacted and specifics on how and when it will be enforced.
The decision to pass a mask ordinance was fact based, Mayor Dale Ross said. Each day the city receives detailed data from the Williamson County Health District about COVID-19 cases in the county and Georgetown.
“The data was getting alarmingly worse,” Ross said. “We had to do something.”
Ross later pointed out that Georgetown expects to need 13 intensive care unit beds in the next 10 to 14 days but currently has six available.
Gov. Greg Abbott said June 16 that he is watching hospital capacity and positivity rates regarding metrics to drive decisions.
The positivity rate looks at what percentage of tests are positive. This is a way to measure if overall coronavirus cases are increasing as the number of tests available also increase, Community Services Director Jack Daly said. Georgetown’s positivity rate is 13% as of July 2.
“The governor says if your positivity rate is about 7% you’re OK, but if you hit 10% it starts to get troublesome,” Daly said. “That’s when we need to start thinking about what things we can do to limit the spread of COVID-19 throughout the community.”
While area hospitals are getting better at handling COVID-19, there is still no vaccine, so the best the government can do is encourage people to stay home and to social distance when they must go out, Daly said.
“If people can’t social distance, the best tool we have available to prevent the spread is a mask, because COVID-19 spreads through droplets,” he said.
The state and city are not allowed to fine an individual for not complying with a local mask mandate, but if a city feels the spread of the coronavirus is posing a threat to public safety and the health of the community, cities can impose requirements upon businesses to ask their employees and customers to wear masks in situations where social distancing is not possible.
“We do not want to be the mask police,” Daly said. “We want to encourage people to be safe and do what we can to limit the spread of COVID-19.”
Daly said he believes it is possible to have Georgetown’s economy open in a modified way while being safe.
“We’re not going to get back to normal real fast if we just ramp up and our [positive test] numbers keep trending in this poor direction,” he said. “We’re trying to flatten the curve and limit the spread and acceleration of the spread, but at the same time understand we need to make sure people are able to do their business to the best of their ability.”
Enforcing the order
Georgetown Police Department Chief Wayne Nero provided details on how the department will respond to Georgetown’s new mask order.
“Our goal is to really educate and inform what is required to gain willful compliance, not to issue citations,” he said. “That’s never been the goal; it’s not going to be the goal now. We’re asking businesses to enforce their own health and safety policy, not for the PD to have to come out and do that.”
Officers will not be patrolling or roaming through businesses looking for order violations, Nero said.
An example of a low-level complaint would be if a restaurant patron removed their mask to eat then did not put it back on when getting up to use the restroom.
“Say somebody calls 911 to report them,” he said. “I know that sounds crazy, but that’s the world we live in. We are likely not going to respond in person, what we’re likely to do is have a supervisor handle these calls like we did with the stay-at-home order [violation reports].”
The supervisor might call the business's manager to inform them of the complaint and may ask if a health and safety policy is posted and what it says. The complaint will be compared to the policy, and the supervisor will ensure management is working to enforce it.
“If management doesn’t seem to understand the order and what’s necessary, we may go out at that point just to give a copy of it and explain what’s required, what they need to do and to answer any questions,” Nero said. “The supervisor will document the call thoroughly for future reference, and if a warning is appropriate, we will issue a warning, but we’re not likely to issue a citation in a case like that.”
Nero said a more serious call could be about a business with a small storefront or lobby with 10 people inside, no social distancing and no masks, for example. Officers would still talk to management about steps taken and ask for cooperation to enforce the order—as the goal is to get them to be compliant.
“Only in the most egregious circumstances are we ever likely to issue a citation,” he said. “If there is no health and safety policy posted—one of the big requirements of the ordinance—we’re going to take particular interest in that.”
Regarding issuing a citation, he said it’s “only when a business just doesn’t want to do anything at all, like 50 people all standing, dancing, having a party, nobody has a mask on and they are all within 1 feet of each other; that would likely be a problem.”
Finally, Nero said if a business is trying to enforce its own policy and a customer will not comply and refuses to leave after being asked to, then the police can be called and would respond to the situation as a criminal trespass issue per usual protocol, regardless of the mask order.
These scenarios serve to help understand the department’s approach, he clarified, but there are many nuances to what could potentially happen and who calls in.
Ross said an unfortunate aspect of the situation is that masks are a political symbol.
“I don’t look at it as a political symbol at all,” he said. “I see it as a symbol of respect and love and caring for our fellow Georgetonians, because it’s not protecting the wearer of the mask; it’s protecting the people that are around the person.”
Ross said he hopes all the businesses and residents in the city will take the order seriously and do their part to stop the spread so everyone can get out of the pandemic.
“We have a history of being a great community; people love Georgetown and are going to do the right thing,” he said.