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Paxton tells Dallas, Travis, and Bexar counties to fix their COVID-19 orders

BEXAR COUNTY, Tex. (Texas News Radio) — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is telling three counties and two cities they need to fix their local coronavirus orders because they are out of line with the state’s.

Paxton’s office sent three letters Tuesday — one to Bexar County and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, a second to Travis County and Austin Mayor Steve Adler, and a third to Dallas County.

“Unfortunately, a few Texas counties and cities seem to have confused recommendations with requirements and have grossly exceeded state law to impose their own will on private citizens and businesses. These letters seek to avoid any public confusion as we reopen the state,” said Attorney General Paxton. “I trust that local officials will act quickly to correct any orders that unlawfully conflict with Texas law and Governor Abbott’s Executive Orders.”

Each letter pinpoints specific issues the office has with each county’s orders.

Among the common threads in all three letters were the following:

  • Paxton’s office took issue with all three counties’ mandate to stay home.  The office said the state order does not mandate people to stay home, but the local order does.  The state supersedes that mandate.
  • All three counties require sections of the public — everyone over 2 in Dallas, over 6 in Travis, and over 10 in Bexar — to wear a mask or face covering.  The state says the state government recognizes that the public will make smart decisions to protect themselves appropriately. The state order is a recommendation, not a mandate, and thus the local orders are not valid.
  • The office took issue with the county and city mandating houses of worship limit the number of people on premises.  It said the local order unlawfully tramples religious freedom and exposes the county and city to legal liability.  The governor’s order recommends that religious services “be conducted in accordance with the joint guidance issued and updated by the attorney general and governor.”

Bexar County and San Antonio

Paxton’s office took issue with five parts of the county and city orders: houses of worship, essential businesses and reopened businesses, masks, shelter-in-place, and criminal offense.  Some of the details are listed above, shared with the other counties.

The attorney general’s office said Bexar County is unlawfully restricting businesses deemed to be “essential” and “reopened” from operating as permitted under the governor’s orders.  As an example, the office said the county and city order mandates these businesses must provide masks to employees.

On criminal offenses for violating orders, the attorney general had two issues.  First, the punishment of confinement is no longer permitted.  Additionally, the office said the city and county’s $2,000 fine for violating is not legal, as the state’s fine for such a violation is $1,000.

Travis County and Austin

Paxton’s office had a few more issues with officials in the capital region — seven in total: houses of worship, essential businesses and reopened businesses, contact-tracing, masks, shelter-in-place, criminal offense, and communications.  Some of the topics are shared with other counties and listed above.

The attorney general’s office said Travis County and Austin are out of line for mandating how houses of worship operate.  Among the restrictions highlighted by the office were employment decisions based on sexual orientation, withholding people from giving or receiving essential services unless social distancing and face-covering orders were followed, creating a disease response plan, and canceling in-person meetings.  Paxton’s office said these orders restrict essential services and is thus not enforceable.

The office said the city and county are preventing some essential businesses from operating, which contradicts the state’s order, which supersedes the local orders.

Paxton’s office expressed concern about Austin’s contact-tracing plan to “encourage” restaurants to keep track of everyone who dined at these restaurants, including when they visited and their contact information.  While it is a recommendation, the attorney general’s office called it “Orwellian” because it threatens restaurants who choose not to comply by releasing their names and there are privacy concerns of private citizens.  The office said these orders are invalid.

Also like Bexar County, the attorney general took issue with Travis County’s shelter-in-place order, saying it cannot be mandatory.  However, Austin’s order also bans all non-essential travel.  The office said it is likely both the Texas and United States constitutions prohibit a city from banning entry or exit into or out of it.  It said these orders are unenforceable.

Paxton’s office took issue with the county’s order to impose a criminal penalty for violating the state’s orders.  The city and county attempted to impose a 180-day jail sentence for violators, which the attorney general’s office said is invalid.

The office said Travis County and the City of Austin are not communicating with the public clearly by conflating a recommendation with a mandate or requirement.  The two are not the same, but the order does not make it clear.  The attorney general’s office is asking the county and city to clarify those portions of the order.

Dallas County

The attorney general’s office had four areas of concern with Dallas County: houses of worship, essential businesses and reopened businesses, masks, and shelter-in-place.  Some of the issues are shared with the other counties and listed above.

One unique issue Paxton’s office had with Dallas County was with its restrictions on certain businesses the state says are essential services.  The attorney general’s office took issue with the county saying law offices are not considered to be an essential business.  That, the attorney general’s office said, is not valid.  Additionally, essential services that do not follow CDC recommendations are removed from that list under the county’s orders.  The office said local government cannot tell a essential business they are not an essential business because of a violation.

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