AUSTIN – All Texans in counties with 20 or more cases of COVID-19 must wear masks in public places, Gov. Greg Abbott said in an executive order handed down Thursday.

“Wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Abbott, moving away from his often stated opposition to a statewide mandate.

“We have the ability to keep businesses open and move our economy forward so that Texans can continue to earn a paycheck, but it requires each of us to do our part to protect one another–and that means wearing a face covering in public spaces.”

The order came amid a prolonged spike in both the number of people in Texas testing positive for the highly contagious virus and in the number of hospitalizations.

His order also allows mayors and county judges to impose restrictions on some outdoor gatherings of over 10 people and makes it mandatory that, with certain exceptions, people cannot be in groups larger than 10 and must maintain six feet of social distancing from others.

The order, which Abbott resisted issuing as recently as June 22, comes just ahead of the Fourth of July weekend and after a steep and steady spike in cases that started soon after Memorial Day.

According to the state’s official coronavirus website, Texas has seen nearly 176,000 positive cases since the pandemic struck early this year. Of those, about 90,000 people have recovered and more than 2,500 have died.

The state estimates that nearly 83,000 people have the disease and more than 7,300 of them are hospitalized.

The issue of mask-wearing has been as polarizing in Texas as it has been in several other states. Texas Democrats said the Republican governor was too slow to hand down the mandate given the rising caseload.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.

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