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As coronavirus cases spike, Texas mayors ask governor to allow them to require masks

Governor Greg Abbott's office responded tersely, saying the mayors hadn't "lifted a finger to impose penalties and enforcement mechanisms available to them."
Wearing a face mask for protection as a precaution against COVID-19, a man walks along the River Walk in San Antonio on June 15, 2020, in San Antonio.Eric Gay / AP

The mayors of nine Texas cities asked Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday to be allowed to mandate masks, a request that came as the number of daily coronavirus cases in the state set a record high.

In a terse reply to the mayors of Arlington, Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Grand Prairie, Houston, Plano and San Antonio, Abbott's office said none of them had "lifted a finger to impose penalties and enforcement mechanisms available to them."

"The one time a county judge did, a business owner wound up in jail," said John Wittman, a spokesman for the Republican governor.

The reference was to Shelly Luther, a salon owner who became a cause célèbre among conservatives after a Dallas judge sentenced her to a week in jail for reopening her business while the state's stay-at-home order was in effect.

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Since the order was lifted in May, the number of confirmed cases has continued to rise. According to an NBC News tally, nearly 90,000 people in Texas have contracted the virus. State data show that the number rose by more than 2,600 on Tuesday, a toll Abbott told residents not to be startled by.

"There is no reason to be alarmed," Abbott said during a news conference. "Even though there are more people hospitalized, we still remain at the lowest threat level in our hospital capacity."

Abbott's April 28 order beginning a phased-in reopening of businesses across the state "encouraged" people to wear face coverings, but local authorities weren't allowed to fine residents who didn't.

In Tuesday's letter, the mayors said requiring people to wear them could "prove to be the most effective way to prevent the transmission of the disease."

The mayors added that many people refused to wear them — even though their efficacy has been scientifically proven.

Research published in the medical journal The Lancet last month looked at 172 studies from 16 countries that examined different prevention measures. The study found that the risk of transmitting the coronavirus drops from 17 percent to 3 percent if a mask or a respirator is worn.

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Tuesday's request from mayors came amid fears that the virus is resurgent not just in Texas but also across the country. Case counts have receded in states hit hard earlier this year, even as they jump in other states, including South Carolina, Arkansas and Arizona, which didn't suffer the kinds of outbreaks that New York and New Jersey did.

Dr. David Weber, medical director of hospital epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Medical Center in Chapel Hill, told NBC News that the virus will continue to spread if people let their guards down.

"If people become less compliant with physical distance and masks, we're going to see more cases," he said.

CORRECTION (June 16, 2020, 10:40 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated who the reply to the mayors’ request came from. It was John Wittman, a spokesman for the governor, not Gov. Greg Abbott.