Despite Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide orders lifting all coronavirus measures in the state as of yesterday, Austin and Travis County announced that they will still require masks and social distancing measures this week anyway. While the statewide orders claim to supersede “any conflicting order” on the local level, Austin and Travis County officials argue that these continued mandates are legal, because, according to the Texas Health and Safety Code, there are rules that allow municipalities to issue requirements protecting public health. Travis County Judge Andy Brown also told the Texas Tribune that local mandates were issued by the local health authority, not by him or Austin Mayor Steve Adler.
Abbott’s orders permit individual businesses to require face masks and other social distancing measures if they so choose.
Paxton’s suit names Adler, Brown, and interim medical director and health authority Dr. Mark E. Escott as the defendants. It alleges that the “emergency orders impermissibly and unconstitutionally undercut” Abbott’s reopening orders.
The suit was filed in the Travis County 98th Judicial district around noon on Thursday, March 11. Paxton is seeking a temporary restraining order and temporary injunction on Travis County and Austin’s COVID-19 mitigation requirements.
The hearing was supposed to be held on Friday, March 12, according to CBS Austin, but it has been delayed by two weeks to Friday, March 26. This means that Austin and Travis County orders still stand.
Before filing the suit, Paxton released a letter addressed to both city and county officials, threatening to sue over the orders on Wednesday, March 10. “We have already taken you to court under similar circumstances,” he wrote, referring to the time when he sued Austin and Travis County over their New Year’s Eve weekend restaurant and bar curfew order. Notably, Paxton had to bring the suit to three different courts before his appeal was approved. “You lost,” he continued in the letter. “If you continue to flout the law in this manner, we’ll take you to court again and you will lose again.”
In response to Paxton’s initial letter, Adler shared a statement noting that he and Brown “will fight Gov. Abbott and Attorney Gen. Paxton’s assault against doctors and data for as long as we possibly can.”
Adler also addressed the unfortunate timing of Abbott’s orders — issued a week before spring break and St. Patrick’s Day. (The release was subtitled: “From the State Leaders Who Brought All Texas Residents, ‘No Power/No Water,’ Now Say ‘No Masks,’” referring to the state’s fateful handling of the statewide winter storm disaster just last month.)
Adler urged the importance of masking, concluding, “I believe leaders need to be clear and unambiguous in their communications and messaging about masking.”
After Paxton filed the suit, Adler reiterated his and Brown’s stance, writing “We are not aware of any Texas court that has allowed state leadership to overrule the health protection rules of a local health authority,” and added that “the attorney general is simply wrong.”
Brown tweeted that it is “unfortunate the attorney general is once again failing to make the health of our community his priority.”
The first time Paxton brought the New Year’s Eve suit to a Travis County court, the judge ruled against him.
Facial coverings are still recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as effective ways to mitigate the spread of the contagious virus.
Update, Friday, March 12, 11:31 a.m.: This article, originally published on Thursday, March 11, has been updated to include information about the date of the hearing.
- Austin-Travis County sued by Paxton over mask mandate, despite other cities requiring them [CBS Austin]
- AG Paxton Issues Letter to Austin Mayor and Travis County Judge Warning Against Unlawful Mask Orders [Ken Paxton]
- Texas Attorney General Threatens to Sue the City of Austin If It Doesn’t Lift Mask Mandate [EATX]