Local mask mandates pop up in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning COVID-19 restrictions

Local mask mandates are popping back up across Texas — even as Gov. Greg Abbott has stressed that local officials who try to enforce restrictions aimed at reducing spread of COVID-19 will be penalized.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is the most recent to defy the governor’s order. He announced Monday that the city’s nearly 22,000 city employees will be required to mask up inside city buildings where social distancing is not doable, such as bathrooms, elevators and conference rooms.

“The mayor has a right and responsibility to ask city employees to wear face coverings indoors to help stop the virus from spreading,” Mary Benton, a Turner spokesperson, said to the Houston Chronicle. “With the rise in the delta variant cases and high numbers of unvaccinated individuals, Mayor Turner is doing what is necessary to keep [city] employees healthy.”

The seven-day average of new daily cases in Harris County is 1,761 as of Tuesday, compared with 59 cases in the first week of July.

Statewide, cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been skyrocketing. This week, hospitalizations for people with the virus hit more than 7,300 — which is roughly the number of people hospitalized a year ago when Abbott first implemented a statewide mask mandate.

Abbott’s July executive order says “no government entity, including a county, city, school district and public health authority” and “any public or private entity that is receiving or will receive public funds” can enforce mask or vaccine mandates. Offenses could lead to fines up to $1,000. Private businesses, however, still have the right to require customers and employees to wear masks.

President Joe Biden called Abbott’s ban on masks and vaccine mandates “the most extreme” of its kind across the country in a statement Tuesday, noting that six other states have imposed similar restrictions.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Last month, as the conditions worsened in Texas hospitals, Abbott stressed that he was not budging on his executive order and said “that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates.”

A handful of courthouses have also implemented mask mandates, arguing that Abbott’s executive order doesn’t affect the judicial branch of government.

A Dallas administrative court judge ordered that everyone inside Dallas County’s courthouses — the George Allen courthouse, the Frank Crowley courthouse and the Henry Wade building — must be masked. This came as Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins announced Tuesday that the county has increased its coronavirus threat level to red, the highest level of threat in its assessment system.

“People are required to come to court,” Jenkins said. “You may have a jury summons, you may have been subpoenaed as a witness, you may need to be there as part of your job — and it’s important that we keep those people safe.”

Additionally, Jenkins required attendees of a Tuesday meeting of the commissioners court to wear masks, and commissioner J.J. Koch, a Republican, refused and was escorted out of the room.

“We have to always remember that the enemy in COVID is not one another, it’s the virus,” Jenkins said. “And if people are going to be required to come to court, it’s my job to keep them safe.”

A judge in Williamson County also is requiring visitors and employees entering the Williamson County Justice Center to wear masks as the county recently entered its red COVID-19 risk level.

Last week, Austin Mayor Steve Adler urged City Manager Spencer Cronk to enforce a vaccination requirement for city employees. Adler said if he could, he would impose a citywide mask mandate.

“But the legal question of whether or not a local health authority or local officials have the ability to adopt valid and enforceable rules for their local communities, is something that seems to be an open question under Texas law,” Adler told KXAN-TV.

Austin is in Stage 4 of its risk-based guidelines, urging everyone — including those who are vaccinated — to wear masks indoors.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Travis County and Austin officials in March for imposing a local mask mandate despite Abbott’s order which prohibited such requirements at the time. A district judge denied Paxton’s request to immediately block the local mandates, and the lawsuit fizzled out after both parties agreed to dismiss the case after the local order expired and Abbott issued a new executive order.

“No one wants there to be litigation,” Adler said. “I would just hope that the governor would take a look at the same data here from the same doctors we’re hearing from and know how important it is for people to get vaccinated.”

The seven-day average of hospitalizations in Texas at the beginning of July was 1,705. That number has since jumped to 5,926.

In the same time period, the seven-day average for new daily cases has increased ninefold, leaping from 813 cases to 7,558.

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chair, has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/08/04/texas-mask-mandate-greg-abbott-covid/.

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