Bell County Judge David Blackburn has issued a new directive aimed at helping slow the spread of COVID-19 in response to a spike in cases that has led to a decrease in available hospital beds in Central Texas.

Judge Blackburn released his notes shortly before a Wednesday afternoon press conference. You'll find links to those notes and a PDF copy of the latest directive - Directive #7 - below.

In short, Directive #7 will require all businesses in Bell County that provide goods and services to the public to implement a health and safety policy mandating the wearing of face coverings on their premises. They must post this policy in a conspicuous location to provide notice to employees, volunteers, and visitors.

Section III of the directive strongly recommends member of the public ages 10 and older wear a face covering over their nose and mouth when in public places in which maintaining a distance of six feet or more is difficult, including workplaces.

The directive will go into effect at 12:01 AM Monday, June 29, and will continue to 11:59 PM Monday, July 13 unless extended, modified, or terminated early by Judge Blackburn.

In his notes, Blackburn writes that of the 1,027 total staffed hospital beds in our region, 79% are occupied, and that there were only 13 ICU beds available as of Tuesday, June 23. This has raised concerns about hospital capacity and disruptions possible if there is a surge in COVID-19 patients.

"A surge in COVID patients is disruptive to ‘normal business’ and could cause the hospitals to take some backward steps in terms of deferring elective surgeries in order to free up bed space and re-allocating resources that would otherwise go toward non-COVID health care," Blackburn writes. "This is not a direction the hospitals want to go. It is also a direction that I don’t want our area health care providers to go."

Blackburn cites Governor Greg Abbott's comments on Monday that COVID-19 is spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas, and expresses concern that Gov. Abbot is prepared to issue more mandates if the situation continues.

"I think the message he is sending us is that if we don’t see the numbers turn around, he is prepared to step back in and issue more mandates," Blackburn writes. "In fact, I think the message is we will see a return to some measures that none of us want to see return."

Blackburn said at Tuesday's press conference the he wants to see a balance between reopening our economy and the flow of commerce with COVID-19 health concerns, and that he does not wish to see more intrusive mandates or business closures. Killeen Mayor Jose L. Segarra and Temple Mayor Tim Davis echoed these sentiments.

Segarra also clarified that people will not be fined if they do not wear a mask in public in Killeen. However, he strongly encouraged citizens to do so in order to help slow the spread of the virus.

Davis said he realizes the decision to mandate masks in businesses may not be popular, but is necessary for the sake of public health and safety. He said the largest demographic of people being diagnosed with COVID-19  are people in their 20s, who could spread the virus to more vulnerable members of the community. Davis said wearing a mask may be intrusive, but it's meant to respect and protect our neighbors.

Judge Blackburn said that while individual members of the public will not be fined for not wearing masks in public, under Directive #7, businesses can be fined up to $1,000 per violation for non-compliance. He said anyone with questions can call (254) 939-5203 for more information.

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