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Government/Politics

COVID Surge Has Local Leaders In Texas Looking For Ways Around Gov. Greg Abbott’s Mask Ban

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Dominic Anthony Walsh
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Texas Public Radio
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference regarding Texas’ emergency response to an unprecedented winter storm gripping Texas on Feb. 13, 2021.

Despite the governor’s insistence that “now is the time for personal responsibility,” mayors, county judges and other officials across Texas are trying to take back local control.

Standing in front of reporters on Thursday, as Harris County raised its threat level to "red" for the first time since May, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner made it clear: He was prepared to do whatever it took to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I'll take whatever steps we need to take in order to protect the people, my employees, and the people of this city,” Turner said. “So let me just leave it there. The numbers will dictate my response, and then we'll deal with whatever happens after that. But I am not going to be constrained by some order."

He was referring to an order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott last month, which bans municipalities like Houston and Harris County from setting mask and vaccine mandates. But Turner this week appeared to set up a challenge with the governor, setting a mask mandate for all city employees who can “medically tolerate” face coverings in most settings inside city buildings.

As COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly throughout the state of Texas local leaders are now searching for ways to get around Abbott’s ban and take back local control that was preempted by the governor’s emergency declaration powers.

That includes school districts in Texas, which are also subject to Abbott’s orders.

But the Houston Independent School District — the largest district in Texas — may be the first at odds with the governor's directive if a plan to institute its own mask mandate is approved at a Board of Education meeting next week.

Newly appointed HISD Superintendent Millard House II announced the proposed mandate on Thursday. It would apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated students, staff and visitors at all schools, on buses, and inside other district facilities.

House acknowledged it may bring him in conflict with the governor’s rules. Nonetheless, he said he would bring it in front of the board for the safety of the school community.

“We know that people will be angry, some will be happy, we’re not going to be able to please everybody,” he said. “But what we have to understand is, if we have an opportunity to save one life, it’s what we should be doing.”

Others have unsuccessfully floated the idea of a mask mandate directly to the governor, including El Paso’s mayor and county judge, who wrote a letter this week urging him to let local school districts dictate their own mask policies. While El Paso has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, vaccines are still not approved for most school-age children.

Abbott has not returned requests for comment from Houston Public Media. But a statement from his press secretary to CBS4 in El Paso made it clear that he would not be rolling back his orders anytime soon.

“Governor Abbott has been clear that the time for government mandating of masks is over—now is the time for personal responsibility,” the statement read. “Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask, or have their children wear masks. Vaccines are the most effective defense against contracting COVID and becoming seriously ill, and we continue to urge all eligible Texans to get the vaccine. The COVID vaccine will always remain voluntary and never forced in Texas.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler publicly tried to challenge the ban by calling for mandatory vaccinations for most city staff. But a city spokesperson told KUT last week that the city manager is blocked from ordering it by Abbott’s executive order.

On the other hand, others have asserted what they say is a legal right to mandate masks. Austin Independent School District said Thursday that all students and staff riding buses this upcoming school year must wear a face covering. Despite Abbott's order, district officials said their legal team believes they can set the policy because of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

The CDC says only children younger than 2, people with disabilities barring them from wearing masks and workers for whom a mask would create a safety risk are exempt from face coverings on buses.

Courts in Williamson County issued their own directive this week ordering people who enter the county justice center to wear face coverings and maintain safe physical distance, unless otherwise noted. Under the directive, judges can also remove the mask requirement for their individual courtrooms. It comes after similar orders from courts in Dallas and Harris counties.

According to the Williamson County courts, the judiciary is exempt from Abbott’s order because “courts are unique in that the judicial system is a separate branch of government,” allowing them the ability to require and enforce masks, the county told KUT this week.

The district courts hope that enforcing more safety precautions like mask wearing and social distancing will help to avoid going back to more virtual proceedings that took place at the beginning of the pandemic.

In Harris County, the county attorney has asserted all municipalities have that right, accusing the governor of overstepping his boundaries.

In a statement to Houston Public Media, County Attorney Christian Menefee said he was prepared to challenge the state if need be.

"My office will continue to provide legal advice and guidance to the County Judge and Commissioners as they take steps necessary to protect the public from the spread of COVID-19,” Menefee said. “If that results in a legal conflict with Governor Abbott, then so be it.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the time period in which Harris County was at its highest threat level. It was raised in June 2020, and lasted until May.

Additional reporting from KUT’s Allyson Ortegon.

This story was produced by Houston Public Media.