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What is law enforcement's role in slowing COVID-19 spread in Southeast Texas?

Here in Southeast Texas, ICU beds are full and the area is facing a COVID-19 surge. How are police officers and law enforcement agencies enforcing the mask mandate?

BEAUMONT, Texas — More than 7,000 Texans are in the hospital with COVID-19, the highest numbers since early August. 

Here in Southeast Texas, ICU beds are full and the six-county area is facing a COVID-19 surge. 

How are police officers and law enforcement agencies enforcing Texas Governor Greg Abbott's mask mandate, which is still in effect?

Law enforcement officers can issue citations, but they have to observe people violating the mask order. When they arrive on scene after a complaint and the person left or is now wearing a mask, there is not much they can do. 

No mask, no service is still the rule for businesses across Texas. Governor Abbott's mask order stated that local law enforcement agencies are able to enforce it with a fine of up to $250. 

What does enforcing the mask mandates look like across Southeast Texas?

Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens described a recent complaint. 

"A couple days ago, we got some information," she said. "It was a store on the interstate and people were coming in not wearing masks."

On Thursday, Jefferson County Sheriff's Office Major Donta Miller responded to a complaint at a convenience store off of I-10. 

"I talked to the manager," Miller said. "And we educate the manager on the importance of the order, and we go over their procedures."

In Jefferson County, the calls are coming in. In Hardin County, law enforcement has not received as many of those complaints. 

"We generally do not get those kinds of calls," Hardin County Sheriff Mark Davis said. "And if we did, our response is we're trying to educate them."

Hardin County Judge Wayne McDaniel said the governor's order actually makes it hard for law enforcement to do any enforcing at all. The order states people may not be detained or arrested, which means few consequences for someone who does not want to comply with an officer over not wearing a mask. 

"They have to be able to detain somebody who's violating any law or order," McDaniel said. "It's been an issue, I know it's been brought to the governor's attention, and it has not been fixed, so I think that's why you don't see a lot of enforcement in this area."

Four months after the order went into effect, police said they are mostly letting people off with warnings. 

Sheriff Zena Stephens said her office did issue some citations early on, but it has been fewer than ten. 

"It's a learning curve for law enforcement too," she said. "How do you force people to keep themselves safe and keep others safe?"

Orange County, Newton County and Jasper County law enforcement agencies did not immediately respond for request for comment about how they are handling this issue.

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