FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – Face coverings are going to be required inside Tarrant County businesses through February of 2021, under a new executive order from County Judge Glen Whitley.

He signed the order Tuesday, Nov. 24 during a meeting where dozens of residents questioned the benefit of masks as virus cases rise again, and urged county leaders not to extend the emergency declaration that allows the order.

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Judge Whitley, however, said he is relying on the advice of local medical professionals he trusts, as well as support from other residents who aren’t speaking out during public meetings.

The face covering requirement, which businesses must include as part of a posted health and safety policy, is one of the few virus control measures county leaders are able to implement.

The Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office gave a detailed explanation to county leaders Tuesday that outside of the policy, revocation of bar openings and stopping gatherings over 10 are about the only tools they have.

The approval of gatherings would only apply to those in unincorporated parts of the county.

Judge Whitley has said he believes closing bars would have little effect, due to so many of them now legally considered to be restaurants.

He said he would try to “stay in my lane” when it comes to control measures, and not speculate any more on other options that might be available to local officials.

Public Health Director Vinny Taneja said during Tuesday’s meeting he believes hospitalizations in the region have already reached the level that would require automatic capacity reductions for businesses back to 50-percent, and for bars to close.

Data from the Texas Department of State Health Services show the county is still under that mark of 15% of available beds being used by COVID-19 patients.

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The rate would have to stay above that level for seven days before the reduction would kick in.

Tarrant County leaders indicated they preferred to follow publicly available state data to determine if reductions are needed.

Meanwhile business owners expressed confusion still on exactly what rules they need to follow.

Judge Whitley and county staff indicated they believe businesses are only legally required to follow capacity rules laid out by Governor Greg Abbott.

Recommendations on distancing, partitions and other hygiene practices are suggested in his order, but not required.

Business owners however, including John Bonnell, a prominent restaurant owner in Fort Worth, told county leaders that other state and local agencies are indicating the guidelines are required, and that they could be cited or even closed for not following them.

Whitley indicated county staff would reach out to Fort Worth and state agencies to clarify exactly what rules businesses are legally required to follow.

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