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Facial coverings required in Lockhart, but City Council declines to create ordinance for fines

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By Kristen Meriwether, Editor LPR

Since facial coverings became a requirement to help stop the spread of COVID last year, ensuring people are in compliance has continued to be an issue. Nationwide, people have yelled at each other in stores, shamed each other on social media, and there have even been arrests.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued Executive Order, GA 29, that took effect on July 3, 2020 requiring a face covering over the nose and mouth for anyone over the age of 10 when inside commercial or indoor spaces open to the public. Failure to comply could earn you up to a $250 fine for the second violation.

Many local municipalities—including the City of Lockhart—have issued their own ordinances in an attempt to further strengthen the Governor’s order. The Lockhart City Council passed a resolution on Sept. 1, 2020 requiring all Lockhart businesses post signs regarding the facial coverings requirement.

With several council members receiving complaints or witnessing non-compliance themselves, the Council asked Fire Chief Randy Jenkins to conduct a survey of businesses to see who was in compliance late last year.

On Nov. 25, 2020, Fire Chief Jenkins and staff visited 21 restaurants and five bars. They found 88 percent of businesses to be in compliance with the sign order, and 84 percent of servers wearing masks.

Jenkins shared his findings with the Council on Dec. 1 and was asked by Council to visit convenient stores. He and his staff visited 10 convenient stores on Dec. 4, finding 90 percent of the clerks wearing face coverings.

At the final Council meeting of the year on Dec. 15, the City Council voted to send written warnings to businesses that were not complying with the state or city ordinances. City Attorney Monte Akers wrote seven local businesses written warnings: two for not posting the sign, four for staff and/or customers not wearing masks, and one restaurant for not having a sign and staff not wearing masks, according to the letters, which LPR asked for and was given by the city.

At the Feb. 23 City Council meeting Fire Chief Jenkins came back with a Feb. 10 survey of 14 businesses including convenience stores, restaurants, and retails locations. Chief Jenkins found only one restaurant out of compliance.

When it was determined that the same business had continued to be out of compliance, the issue of next steps, including fines, was discussed.

City Manager Steven Lewis said based on advice from the city’s attorney, “if we want to go to the next level, we will need to pass an additional ordinance that would put us in a better position when we present these cases in municipal court.”

Without naming the business, Mayor Lew White said the owner of a repeat offender has, “formal declarations from his employees as to medical conditions to not wear masks.”

Governor Abbott’s Executive Order GA 29 allows a number of exceptions to the mask order, including “any person with a medical condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering.” Due to HIPPA laws, it is very difficult to force someone to disclose what that medical condition is or prove it by way of a doctor’s note in court.

The Mayor noted the higher compliance, and the decreased numbers in positive COVID cases and increase in vaccinations in Lockhart.

“I don’t know if any cities our size are actively issuing citations,” Mayor White said. “And we do have the issue of his—of some of these businesses’ contentions that there are medical issues involved.”

Council Member Brad Westmoreland noted the 93 percent compliance rate on the latest survey.

“I think we are doing the best we can do,” Westmoreland said. “We are never going to get it perfect. I think it’s amazing that we’ve had the cooperation. I’ll take 90 percent any day.”

The mayor agreed.

“I wish I could have 100 percent. But I think at this point, for the people who don’t comply, it will be up to the customer base to decide whether they feel safe going in their establishments,” Mayor White said. “But I think we should still have the requirement of the notices posted and keep urging compliance with all the COVID protocol.”

The Council did not make any new motions on the matter and did not ask Fire Chief Jenkins to conduct another survey.

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