Unmasking leadership as COVID-19 cases, deaths increase

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Another death and 40 new active cases of COVID-19 were reported last week in Austin County by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The sixth death from the virus was reported on Aug. 19.

According to County Judge Tim Lapham, the total number of cases in the county was 417 as of Monday with 216 of them being active.

Despite the increases in cases and deaths, Lapham and other county leaders continue to defy state health recommendations to wear face coverings in public. At the last two sessions of commissioners court, Lapham, EMS Director Walter Morrow, Sheriff Jack Brandes, Emergency Services Director Ray Chislett, and several others were not wearing face coverings. All four commissioners, Randy Reichardt, Chip Reed, Bobby Rinn, and Mark Lamp, have been wearing masks. Attempts to contact the unmasked officials for comment were unsuccessful by press time.

Lapham, who is a volunteer firefighter in Cat Spring, has never advocated wearing face coverings. In his regular postings on Facebook, he has never advised anyone to wear a mask and only made one mention of them in a post from July 2.

“I still believe it is the business owner’s right to enforce a mask order if they so choose and an individual’s right to patronize that business if they choose and avoid those they don’t feel safe,” he said.

He made that comment following a lengthy post where he shared the guidelines from the governor’s office when Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide mask mandate. That mandate requires people to wear masks in public except under certain circumstances. It also allowed for counties to seek an exemption from the order under certain circumstances, which Austin County has not.

“Every person in Texas shall wear a face covering over the nose and mouth when inside a commercial entity or other building or space open to the public, or when in an outdoor public space, wherever it is not feasible to maintain six feet of social distancing from another person not in the same household,” Abbott ordered.

The order includes a $250 fine, but only enforced at the local level. It does not appear it will be enforced in Austin County, as the sheriff and his deputies have not been wearing masks in public.

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