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As the number of City of Athens and Henderson County COVID-19 cases continue to grow, City Councilwoman Toni Clay is calling for businesses to require customers to wear masks to show the spread of the disease.

The COVID numbers on Tuesday showed a total of 102 confirmed cases in Henderson County. Of those, 58 of the patients have recovered. There have been three deaths due to the virus.

In the city of Athens, 36 cases have been recorded, with two of the county's three deaths.

Clay read a statement at the City Council meeting on Monday asking residents to love their neighbors enough to don a mask when out in public.

"We — and I include myself — have thought ourselves here in rural East Texas to be somewhat buffered against the sharp edge of the virus; I fear we may come to regret our approach. In his June 22 statewide address, Gov. Abbott called the rate of COVID-19 spread unacceptable."

In the early days of the pandemic, many in small cities and towns thought the virus might be stalled in the large population centers. But lately the pace of growth has picked up in the rural areas.

"We kind of leveled off and dropped down, but we're going up with the pandemic," Mayor Monte Montgomery said. "What's concerning is the information we get tells the cities they live in, but doesn't tell where they frequent, where they work and where they live."

Montgomery said he spoke with two neighbors who were around individuals that tested positive.

"They said they didn't have a clue," Montgomery said. "They said they took it too lightly. They were young and healthy and what they are realizing now is they may have picked up the virus and transferred it to an elderly parent, aunt, uncle or whatever."

Clay said Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order this month banning local governments from imposing fines or penalties on people who do not wear masks in public. 

"Practically speaking, that leaves us with few options as a city government," Clay said. "This is why I am asking business owners to implement, wherever possible, face mask requirements for entering their premises."

Clay said Athens recently received an allocation of $140,000, at 75% of which must be used on medical-related expenses, such as masks and hand sanitizer.

"In the coming days, our city staff will work toward ordering both masks and hand sanitizer to be given to local businesses for free distribution to their customers," Clay said.

City Manager Elizabeth Borstad said details about the mask distribution is being worked out.

Councilman Aaron Smith said as time goes by, people get weary of complying with the guidelines and safety requests.

"We need everyone to stay diligent with their social distancing and preventative measures they've put in place," Smith said. "I think Toni is right. We need to keep this thing at the forefront."

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