A mask order goes into effect within the city limits at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, ordering businesses to require staff and customers to don protective face coverings against COVID-19 or face fines.

The order, approved Monday night in a 6-1 vote with Councilman David Hodges against, will last until the next city council session on Monday, July 13. Council could opt to immediately extend the order at that point.

Only businesses within the El Campo city limits are affected by the order. Wharton County Judge Phillip Spenrath has not issued a similar order and has said he would instead follow requirements handed down by the state or federal government. Neither Wharton nor East Bernard have similar orders, although Wharton Mayor Tim Barker was in the audience Monday night “to see how (city council) handled it.”

El Campo police will be tasked with enforcing the order targeting businesses and not individuals. A fine of $1,000 per day can be assessed. 

“We will be ticketing blatant violators,” Chief Terry Stanphill said Monday, but added he would work with businesses attempting to comply, but facing less than cooperative customers.

Councilman Hodges, owner of a welding supply business, not only voted against the mask requirement, he told council he would not follow the order at his business. “When people come into my store, I’m not going to ask them to put on a mask,” Hodges said.

Mayor Randy Collins, owner of music stores in multiple locations, spoke out as a firm supporter of putting the mask order into place. “I’m all for freedom and everything, but if you do wear it, you are going to cut the percentage (of virus spreading) down.”

Dr. Brooke Dorotik, a physician at El Campo Memorial Hospital/Mid Coast Medical Clinic, serves as the city’s health authority. She agreed with ordering protective face masks as a step against the virus sweeping the world, adding even the non-medical gear efforts “provide some benefit.

“You are doing the right thing. It may not be the popular thing, but it’s the right thing,” she said. “Wharton County is on the rise (in the number of COVID-19 patients). I think we need to be socially responsible.”

Business opinions vary on the mask requirement.

“We understand there is a wide range of opinions regarding the use of masks when shopping in our local businesses,” City Development Corporation of El Campo Executive Director Carolyn Gibson said. “Our position is one of safety and prudence. If wearing a mask keeps one person from getting the virus then we feel it’s worth the effort for all of us to mask up when shopping. We respect everyone’s opinion and rights but we sincerely feel this is best for the greater good of El Campo.

“If everyone would do the same thing, be safe and follow the guidelines, we could nip this resurgence of the virus in the bud. But it will take us all working together to make this happen,” she added.

Dorotik pointed out that medical workers are already wearing and have been wearing facial coverings all day long.

Face coverings can include everything from a medically-rated mask to a simple t-shirt or bandanna. The simpler facial coverings help prevent particles from being expelled into the air, health officials say, making all safer through overall compliance.

“I don’t think anyone in this room likes the government telling them what to do. But three weeks ago, I didn’t know anyone with COVID-19. Now I know six or seven,” Councilman Chris Barbee said. “We have to make a decision to protect our people.”

Councilwoman Gloria Harris said she supported the face mask order, and did not understand the public resistance.

“What’s a face mask going to hurt?” she said.

Outdoor activities are excluded from the order as are recreational sports. Gyms must comply.

Municipal buildings are not included in the order, but City Manager Courtney Sladek said staff would be wearing face coverings, an employee requirement in response to the pandemic. City Hall reopened Tuesday after learning a staff member tested negative after a potential exposure.

Children ages three and under are excluded from the order.

City officials urged the public to stay home when feasible and to not bring children into businesses when possible.

Councilwoman Anisa Vasquez, a healthcare worker, said she’s concerned, “I was concerned that once we start, it will be too late. I think that’s where we are now. I’m super disappointed in the county judge and commissioners (for not issuing a similar order).”

It’s vital the El Campo community weather the crisis together, Gibson said.

“The most important thing right now is doing everything possible to allow our businesses to continue operating,” she said. “A little bit of personal discomfort is more than worth the potential of having to close our businesses again, and perhaps losing some of them forever.”

Wharton officials have started supplying a limited number of masks to businesses, Barker told the El Campo City Council.

There are currently no plans to do that here, but it will be examined to see if masks are available.

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