Council also voted to allow 100% occupancy in city facilities, up from 75%, and officials directed city staff to revisit the mandate by April 12.
Prior to the decision, which came during a March 8 City Council meeting, City Manager Robert Camareno said protocol so far in Texas has placed capacity restrictions and other COVID-19-related restrictions on areas with hospitalization rates at 15% or higher. Camareno said as of March 8, the hospitalization rate in New Braunfels was at about 6%.
According to Abbott's order, every person in the state is still strongly encouraged to follow health recommendations and guidelines from Texas Department of State Health Services and allows local school districts to continue to set their own guidelines.
"Our focus has always and will be the health and wellbeing of our city staff and our residents and our customers," Camareno said. "Therefore city staff will continue to follow our COVID-19 policy, including wearing face coverings while at work."
Camareno added many other cities are continuing to require face masks not only for staff, but also for customers, including Austin, Buda, El Paso, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Kyle, San Antonio and Seguin.
"One of my concerns is that if it's not mandatory, it's going to be sort of binary—where it's either you have to or you won't [wear a mask]," District 4 Council Member Matthew Hoyt said. "I don't know how much voluntary compliance we'll have."
Hoyt invoked his own experience with mask protocols while operating his business in order to punctuate his concerns with nonmandatory mask compliance requests.
"We have to keep these numbers down. We have to keep the hospitalization rates down," Hoyt said. "These masks, they're working."
During public discussion of the agenda item, New Braunfels physician Dr. Madison Lowery said someone dying from COVID-19 is "not pretty," and compared a mask mandate with a smoking ban that went into effect 20 years ago in the city.
"A lot of the conversation was about rights," Lowery said of the smoking ban, which was expanded to include vaping devices in 2017. "It was the same type of conversation I'm hearing today. ... [About] the rights of the people next to you who are dying from the smoking you did. It's the same thing with COVID[-19]. People are dying of COVID because other people gave it to them."
Sometimes it is because people put themselves in the position to contract the illness, but many times innocent bystanders acquire COVID-19 due to the carelessness of others, Lowery said, citing the example of his own medical staff.
"This mask mandate is not a government overreach," Lowery said. "We're trying to save lives with it. ... If we're going to err, let's err on the side of caution. Let's err on the side of saving lives."
New Braunfels physician Dr. Emily Briggs also addressed council, and in lockstep agreement with Lowery, said a citywide mask mandate should continue.
Citing a still low vaccination rate statewide and describing the horrors of how COVID-19 can be fatal for some, Briggs encouraged officials to follow facts with regard to the city's policy.
"I'm afraid for our high-risk patients. I'm afraid for our low-risk staff members and high-risk staff members who might otherwise not have the ability to say, 'I demand having somebody around me wearing that mask,'" Briggs said.
Some who addressed council were opposed to a continued mask mandate and during public comment cited a need for personal freedoms as well as studies they claimed debunk the effectiveness of masks as a main reason for their opposition.
"I can tell you those masks are protecting our community," Briggs said. "There is truth in that different types of masks afford different types of safety. An N-95 mask is designed to protect the wearer as well as the community. A surgical mask like I'm wearing does not protect me as much as it protects others from my germs."
The deliberateness of wearing either type of mask serves to protect the community as a whole.
"It's the same idea, as I've commented on before, of wearing a seat belt," Briggs said.
During an impassioned statement following public comment, Mayor Rusty Brockman said he realized he is coming from an emotional place, as his wife had been in the hospital for about two weeks with serious symptoms of COVID-19.
"I think that what Mr. Camareno said, I think it's extremely important," said Brockman, who contracted COVID-19 in February. "And I think that we need to support the staff with continuing to wear the mask."