The Moot Mask Mandate


SAN ANGELO, TX — “I learned about it the afternoon the order was put out,” said Tom Green County Judge Steve Floyd. Tuesday afternoon, the controversial mask mandate for all schools in the county was about to be released when Floyd first heard about it. Two days later, Floyd said Thursday morning that he was on the phone with the Texas Attorney General’s office. Tom Green County had landed to AG Ken Paxton’s “List.” The Republican ally of Governor Greg Abbott had compiled a list of counties that were defying the governor’s order forbidding the issuance of a mandate to wear a mask. Tom Green County was highlighted.

“I said, ‘look, I had nothing to do with it. I don’t have that authority,’” Floyd relayed his plea to Paxton’s office. Floyd said the mandate came exclusively from Tom Green County Health Authority Dr. James Vretis and Vretis is not in the county judge’s chain of command. In fact, Vretis, in his capacity as health authority, answers ultimately to the governor himself.

Mayor Brenda Gunter was more surprised with the mask mandate for schools than Floyd. She said the first she heard of it was when citizens blew up her phone. Some even stopped by her restaurant to give her a piece of their minds.

“I had no idea this was going to happen,” she said.

Floyd heads up an informal countywide coronavirus task force with key leaders, like from the city, county, school districts, Angelo State University, and Goodfellow Air Force Base. He said the committee met via teleconference on Monday and nothing was mentioned about issuing a mask mandate the very next day.

“By the time the thing came out, I just stayed quiet. I didn’t want to inject any more confusion into the air,” Floyd said.

In Texas during heath emergencies, the local health authority becomes a state officer with access to state resources, Floyd said. And because of this and in this instance, it puts Dr. James Vretis in control of mask mandates.

By mid-morning Wednesday after the issuance of the mask mandate by Vretis, many school districts were announcing intentions to not follow the order.

“If we have a mask mandate, who is going to enforce it?” Floyd asked.

The Tom Green County Sheriff’s Office has crime to fight, not to get involved in a mask skirmish between students, parents and school officials, he said. Sheriff Nick Hanna has refused to enforce any Covid-19 protocols so far. This morning, Assistant Chief Tracy Fincher said the police department was hoping that all remain calm while the matter sorts itself out and enforcing mask mandates in not on his department’s agenda.

Among the districts bucking the mandate were Grape Creek, Wall, and Water Valley (“we have a 0.0049% positivity rate,” its superintendent stated on Facebook). Christoval ISD made no public announcements that we are aware of, but on Wednesday, the district announced on its Facebook page that there will be no Covid-19 restrictions at its first regular season football game scheduled for Friday night, August 27.

The San Angelo ISD also backed away from mandating masks and denied any involvement in the creation of the order. “The San Angelo ISD did not initiate the property control order,” San Angelo ISD Superintendent Carl Dethloff told us. Vretis’ order was called a “property control order” because it specified masks must be worn in places — or on property— where instruction is provided if a single case of Covid-19 reported infecting students or staff is detected.

On background, San Angelo ISD officials said their primary concern was keeping schools open this year with students in the classroom. The past year’s distance learning experiment did not age well with district officials. Classes over the internet resulted in poorer learning and students, such as kids in key grades such as the first, didn’t learn to read well last year. The Texas Education Agency’s STAAR results found, “Outcomes for In-Person Learners Appreciably Higher Than for Those Who Were Remote.”

To correct the performance problem at San Angelo ISD, teachers are being augmented to teach second graders what each student missed last year, for example. If mask mandates motivate parents to pull children out of school this year to home school, it will exasperate the problem and widen the learning gap.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Runnels County, Miles ISD shut down the schools until August 30 because many teachers had Covid-19. The district did not restart distance learning, either. The same thing happened in Iraan-Sheffield ISD in Pecos County.

Closing schools because Covid-19 is raging through small communities in west Texas was likely a primary reason Vretis provided the masking order. In an interview on the weekly video show Ask San Angelo LIVE! earlier this month, Vretis strongly suggested that parents have their kids wear masks at school. Floyd believes Vretis was offering cover to the school districts to require masks.

“He works in the middle of this pandemic,” Floyd noted. Vretis is an ER doctor at Shannon Medical Center that are overflowing with Covid-19 patients. And while Floyd was surprised by the mask order, he also believed Vretis has been pragmatic over the course of the pandemic. “Look, he worked with me to allow school districts to hold in-person graduations last year.”

“I don’t mind telling you that Shannon is stressed. Their staff is stressed, The way the numbers are climbing is a significant concern for this community,” Floyd said. Still, compared to neighboring Trauma Service Areas, San Angelo’s TSA K’s percentage of patients hospitalized with Covid-19 is the second lowest in the state with 8.52 percent as of August 26. Only TSA I in the El Paso region is lower at 6.17 percent. Other neighboring TSAs are much higher: Abilene’s TSA D is at 15.78 percent; Midland’s TSA J is at 18 percent; and Lubbock’s TSA B is at 20.22 percent.

Floyd said that Shannon CEO Shane Plymell is transparent about the impact the Delta Variant surge is having on his facilities. “The staffing is just not available,” Floyd said. “They are bringing back retired nurses. That 8.52 percent feels like the 15 percent we had during the Alpha surge because there aren’t many traveling nurses provided by the state this time.”

By late Thursday morning, Tom Green County’s mask mandate was rendered moot by the Texas Supreme Court. The high court granted an emergency motion for temporary relief in the case of Abbott v. San Antonio, keeping the decision to enforce mask mandates with the governor, not local government entities. The court said that the status quo has been gubernatorial oversight in decisions regarding the public during the pandemic, and this decision keeps with the status quo, according to the Court.

Will anything happen to Dr. Vretis? Floyd washed his hands of the whole affair. “He works for the City of San Angelo. That’s for Brenda to decide,” he said.

Subscribe to the LIVE! Daily

The LIVE! Daily is the "newspaper to your email" for San Angelo. Each content-packed edition has weather, the popular Top of the Email opinion and rumor mill column, news around the state of Texas, news around west Texas, the latest news stories from San Angelo LIVE!, events, and the most recent obituaries. The bottom of the email contains the most recent rants and comments. The LIVE! daily is emailed 5 days per week. On Sundays, subscribers receive the West Texas Real Estate LIVE! email.


Most Recent Videos


SA Live- next time you're able, would you kindly ask Shannon to release the number of prescriptions they've written this year for the antibody treatment, which is still available locally. All Vretis does is push the vaccine which is not a viable treatment for many due to potential side effects (if the person has heart issues/organ transplants/etc etc). The antibody treatment however, typically has less side effects, though allegedly doesn't last as long. Either way, Shannon has not performed enough outreach to the community letting them know of it as option, much less how to qualify for treatment, instead choosing to just continue letting people crowd the emergency rooms. All options for treatment should be pursued if things are as dire as they say.

Also- regarding Shannon's shortage of nurses; perhaps instead of waiting on the state to "provide more nurses" they should've increased salaries for those here. and i don't mean by a small amount either. i mean, maybe it's time for old men with poor judgement, like Vretis, to retire and open up his salary for new employees to get hired on instead.

I'm also curious exactly how many local graduates from ASU's nursing program end up staying and working locally. It would be interesting to see what type of salary and/or signing bonus is offered to local graduating nurses, if at all. Has Shannon or ASU either commented on the subject? Because it's quite disgusting that we're experiencing a local nursing shortage when they also graduate locally. 

Shannon had an entire year and a half at this point to make plans to prepare for additional surges, because as we all know, viruses can and do mutate. Instead of buying out Community hospital, maybe they should've spent some of that money to bring in new nurses, or focus on restructuring in anticipation of a new surge. They did neither, and seem content to just let Vretis wing it now. His judgement is flawed and he already should've been sacked after the Cooper's incident last year. He is not the man to help lead our community at this point. 

It wasn't me...I didn't do anything wrong.   This is the most popular political position to take when violating lawful orders.  Blame someone else.  I do have a question that hasn't been answered as of this time.  Is the federal government still giving $13,000 per diagnoses of Covid?  $35,000 for treatment?  Pay attention folks.

How can you say "Republicans really are set in their goals to harm and possibly kill children..." and in the next post say, "I want the government out of my (and everyone's) medical decisions, how horrible."??

You either want the government to dictate your health choices or not, you can't be both. And we should all know by now that the government sucks at restraint when they're given any power.

I demand the firing of this person who has chosen, multiple times, to defy authority. It’s time for him to go. How about it Mayor Gunter?

Post a comment to this article here:

X Close