His signature bandana might make you think of the Wild West and the likes of Roy Bean, the long ago “hanging judge” of Val Verde County in Texas.
But Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has made a name for himself in recent days not with a hangman’s noose, but with smarts and an actual devotion to the public good.
A county judge in Texas performs various judicial and administrative duties and also is in charge of emergency management.
In that capacity, Wolff is a figure such as is desperately needed during this pandemic in Texas and everywhere else. He demonstrated that anew on Wednesday at a Lowe’s in San Antonio, which is part of Bexar.
Wolff had a bandana the color of bluebonnets up over his mouth and nose as he stood in line to pay for some plants. Everybody else in immediate sight save for one person had a face covering in accordance with an order that Wolff issued on June 17.
Wolff had originally mandated face coverings back in April and had himself started with a Stars and Stripes bandana he found in his wife’s closet. But Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton declared the order “unlawful… unenforceable” because it went beyond Gov. Greg Abbott’s mere face-mask recommendation.
“We trust you will act quickly to correct these mistakes to avoid further confusion and litigation challenging these unconstitutional and unlawful restrictions,” Paxton’s office had written to Wolff, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and several other local officials in Texas who had mandated masks in their jurisdictions. “Your orders purport to strip Texans of their agency. Although your orders ‘require’ individuals to wear masks when they leave their home, they are free to choose whether to wear one or not.”
That effectively voided Wolff’s mandate and similar measures in other Texas locales. Individuals were again free to go mask-less. That no doubt contributed to the subsequent spike on COVD-19 cases. Wolff then discerned a loophole in the governor’s insistence there be no mask mandate for individuals.
“After giving it some thought, the judge said, ‘The governor didn’t say anything about businesses,’” his spokeswoman told The Daily Beast.
On June 17, Wolff was joined by Nirenberg in ordering all businesses to ensure their employees and customers wore masks. Abbott chose not to fight it, perhaps because Wolff had become well-known as a result of the COVID-19 briefings he and Nirenberg held each weekday at 6:13 p.m. Wolff rotated different bandanas he had acquired at the briefings, and people began sending in others in a range of hues. He made sure to thank whoever provided the one he donned that day.
Wolff had a bandana the color of Texas’ state flower as he stood on line on Lowe’s on Wednesday. He had it pulled up in the way that in pandemic times signals not a desperado but somebody concerned about the well-being of others. The lone person in evidence without a face covering was a customer standing one cash register over.
The man was wearing a black T-shirt with an American flag, an assault weapon, and “Combat Iron” stenciled on the chest. The back bore the words “NOBODY OWES YOU SHIT.” Wolff could hear him arguing with the cashier.
“You ought to wear a mask,” the cashier said by Wolff’s recollection.
“I don’t have to,” the customer replied.
“Well, I might have to call 311,” the cashier said.
Wolff would later say that he stepped over, hoping to take the onus off the cashier.
“You need to be wearing a mask,” Wolff quietly told the customer.
Wolff held out his business card so the man could call and vent later. The man slapped it out of Wolff’s hand and continued placing a squeegee mop in front of the cashier for checkout.
Wolff bent over and recovered the card. He called Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar and put the phone on speaker as the man addressed the judge in heated, very strong language.
Wolff had become so famous for his bandanas that he was more recognizable wearing one.
“[The man] knew exactly who he was,” Salazar noted. “He knew exactly who he was dealing with.”
The man proceeded from the store to a car in the parking lot. Wolff followed and wrote down his license-plate number, which he then reported to the sheriff.
Wolff had changed to a white bandana when he appeared at the 6:13 p.m. briefing that evening. He and the mayor began by noting that there were 347 new COVID-19 cases in the county over the previous 24 hours, bringing the total to 8,814. There were four new fatalities, raising the death count to 104.
The first question reporters asked Wolff was about the incident at Lowe’s. He offered a brief account.
“We know there’s a lot of anger out there,” Wolff then said. “This guy may have just been having a bad day.”
He went on, “And people are frustrated because they have had to do things they would prefer not to do. So we just need to realize we’re in a really, really tough time. And we’ve all got to respond to this and do what we can to protect other people and try not to let that anger get away with you. And try to be understanding that the purpose of the mask is to save other people.”
Here was that rarest of souls in a time we most need them: a leader.
“Try your best to hold anger down. Try your best to comply with what we have to do. And let’s see if we can’t all work together.”
A reporter asked Wolff if he had been seen on Father’s Day getting up from a restaurant table with his mask lowered. He replied that he had forgotten when he rose.
“I should have pulled up earlier and I didn’t do that,” he said.
No Trumpian lies or excuses. Just an admission of error in a tone that conveyed contrition. He seemed all the more one of the very good guys as he strode off in his white bandana.
By that night, the sheriff had identified the man in the black T-shirt as 47-year-old Terry Toller. The sheriff prepared an arrest warrant.
At 7 a.m. on Thursday, Toller surrendered at the Bexar County jail.
“This morning, Terry Toller turned himself in on a felony charge of assault on a public servant,” Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales later announced. “At the request of Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, that charge was rejected at magistration by the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office. Mr. Toller was issued a citation for disorderly conduct for using profanity in a public place.”
Where Judge Roy Bean might have hanged a man for such an offense, Judge Nelson Wolff had made allowance for the pressures of the pandemic and sprung Toller with barely the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist. Wolff was a Texas judge for our time.
Around 11 a.m., Toller was released. He left the jail wearing a mask.
Toller’s lawyer, former Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood, said that his client would have never been charged with a felony were it not for the relationship between Wolff and the sheriff. LaHood said Toller had not committed any crime and promised to fight the reduced charge even though it was the equivalent of a traffic summons.
“I believe it was an abuse of power,” LaHood said.
A reporter asked Wolff for a response at Thursday’s 6:13 p.m. briefing.
“He hit me, I didn’t hit him,” Wolff said.
Wolff went on to say that people refusing to wear masks was one reason why the COVID numbers were so high. The latest one-day increase in cases was 638, a record.
“It’s putting a lot of people in danger,” he said. “It’s putting a lot of people in the hospital.”
Wolff’s bandana of the day was purple.