All commercial businesses that service the public in Harris County must begin requiring employees and patrons to wear face coverings under a new executive order signed by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo June 19.

The order officially goes into effect at midnight the morning of June 22, Hidalgo said at a June 19 press conference. It is only slated to run through the end of the month for now, but is likely to be extended along with the county's disaster declaration.

"This order is not just the right thing to do for your health and safety, it’s also good for business," Hidalgo said. "It gives businesses a tool they needed but didn’t have."

The order—in effect for all of Harris County, including cities—is modeled after a similar order issued by the county judge in Bexar County and designed to comply with orders issued at the state level by Gov. Greg Abbott, Hidalgo said. Under the order, businesses are required to have a plan in place that requires anyone ages 10 and older to wear face coverings over their nose and mouth.

Homemade masks are allowed under the order, as are scarves and bandanas, and masks are not required to be worn while eating. Exceptions will also be made for people who have health conditions that would be made worse by wearing a mask.

Similar orders have been passed in the city of Austin and in Dallas County.

Hidalgo likened the mask rule to "No shirt, no shoes, no service" rules already in place at many businesses. She suggested business owners deal with mask violations in a similar way they would deal with a person not wearing a shirt or shoes.

Businesses are subject to fines of up to $1,000 per violation under the order, though customers are not subject to fines. However, Hidalgo said the main purpose of the order is educational and its effectiveness will hinge largely on business owners cooperating voluntarily, reiterating a common theme from previous executive orders Hidalgo signed during the coronavirus.

"At the end of the day success is at much in your hands, if not more so, than it is ours," she said. "The intent is not to have a police officer on every street corner forcing folks to follow this."

A Harris County hotline remains in effect at 832-839-6914 for residents to report violations.

The new order comes a little over one week after Hidalgo unveiled a new system meant to gauge the threat the coronavirus poses to the public. As of June 19, Hidalgo said Harris County is still at Level 2, meaning the spread of the virus is significant and uncontrolled, but not at the point where hospitals are in danger of being overwhelmed. She said the mask order is a way for the county to be proactive instead of reactive.

"We’re still seeing very disturbing trends in COVID-19 hospitalizations, and we are seeing those rates of admissions rise with an increasing rate each day," Hidalgo said. "Just because there is a bed for you right now doesn’t mean we want you there. The spike in our hospitals is real, and it's more dangerous than it’s ever been."

Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health Department, said face coverings can help slow the rate of virus transmission, emphasizing that people can still be infected and spread the virus even if they are not showing symptoms. The order is not meant to replace the need for the public to practice social distancing, minimize contacts and maintain good hygiene, Shah said.

"At the end of the day, while our individual activities may seem to be individual ... there is an incredible effect on the rest of the community," he said. "That’s why face coverings are such an important piece of this."

Hidalgo acknowledged the politicization of face coverings at the June 19 conference. She said expected the order to garner some negative feedback.

"I fully expect some to try to sabotage this effort," she said. "This is a serious time for serious solutions and serious people. For anybody that might seek to politicize this, this is not a time for grandstanding or scoring political points, and history will remember who did that."

Prior to the press event, the board of the Greater Houston Partnership unanimously passed a resolution in support of new rules and regulations that increase the wearing of face masks in public venues. GHP President Bob Harvey said slowing the spread of the coronavirus is a crucial part of helping the economy recover.

"Reopening must be safe in order to be sustainable," Harvey said at the June 19 event. "We cannot afford to go backwards as a economy, but we also cannot allow this virus to go unchecked."