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'Sorry Way To Do Business': Nirenberg, Wolff Fire Back As Texas AG Claims Local Orders Are Unlawful

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Joey Palacios | Texas Public Radio
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff prepare before Tuesday night's COVID-19 briefing.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff are firing back at Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over a letter Paxton’s office sent them claiming the city and county’s public health orders are unlawful and unconstitutional.

The AG’s letter says parts of San Antonio and Bexar County’s executive orders go further than what the state allows in its own recent orders in sectors like religious services, reopened and essential businesses, the mandating of masks, and civil penalties. However both Wolff and Nirenberg say their orders are in direct compliance with the state.

In a press release, Paxton said the orders from local governments have confused recommendations with requirements.  

“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.”  

The letter from Paxton’s office, written by Deputy Attorney General Ryan Vassar, outline specific provisions. For instance, Vassar writes the city’s mandate on masks is unenforceable:

"Your orders provide that ‘all persons over the age of ten shall wear some form of’ mask when leaving their residence. Executive Order GA-21 encourages individuals to wear appropriate masks but does not require them. Instead, the governor’s order recognizes that Texans will act responsibly and make smart decisions to protect themselves and their families. In contrast, 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."

During the nightly COVID-19 briefing, city attorney Andy Segovia said much of San Antonio’s public health orders are taken directly from the governor’s recent orders.

“The governor’s order made it very clear; his latest one said local jurisdictions cannot impose fines or penalties on people not wearing masks, we have that exact language in our order,” Segovia said.  “We say that it’s mandatory to wear a mask but the restriction that the governor placed on local entities do not impose fines or penalties — that’s again, cut and paste, the governor’s order into our order.”

Nearly identical letters were sent by Vassar to the City of Austin, Travis County and Dallas County.

“This is not unlike what we’ve seen from the AG’s office recently in terms of firing off a political letter, so on the merits we’re not concerned but it doesn’t stop the AG from seeking a cheap political headline,” said Nirenberg.

Recently, the governor retroactively removed punishments of jail time for violating the public health orders after a Dallas salon owner was jailed for refusing to close down her businesses. She was later released.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff expressed frustration at the attorney general’s office.

“He’s laid out a number of specific things which we think he’s wrong about but he’s attorney general, and he certainly has the ability to file a lawsuit and in some cases to try to put a local official in jail, he’s already threatened to do that; sorry, sorry way to do businesses,” Wolff said.

Wolff referred to it as a “love letter.”

“I’m very disappointed in the response that we got today and there are legal issues pertaining to that, some of which maybe have stopped us from being able to protect people,” Wolff said during the briefing.

In their joint reply letter, Nirenberg and Wolff say their public health orders have saved more than 8,000 lives — citing a study by the Big Cities Health Coalition. That study claims with 45 days of social distancing, San Antonio and Bexar County prevented the deaths of 8,163 residents.

Their formal response made note of the attorney general's method of delivery.

“In an effort to facilitate our work for the common good through common goals, please call our offices directly. There is no need for a press release to discuss concerns you may have,” they said.

Nirenberg echoed that the local orders are tailored to the governor’s orders.

“As far as what residents should pay attention to, the local orders are capturing what the governor has issued and I would urge the attorney general to be mindful of that,” he said during the briefing.

On Tuesday night, Bexar County reported 1,942 cases of the COVID-19, an increase of 22 cases from the night before. There are 57 deaths in the county. Statewide, Texas has seen an increase of about 1,000 cases per day since the end of April. The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 41,048 total cases on Tuesday and 1,133 deaths.

When asked if the governor’s actions made Texans less safe as the state began reopening businesses, Nirenberg said it would take time to tell.

“We’ll find out in a couple weeks, the challenge with social distancing restrictions is you don’t see the impacts of them for a couple or three weeks,” Nirenberg said.

Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules. 

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