Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott escalated the fight over his ban on local face mask rules, vowing along with his attorney general Wednesday to drag into court “any school district, public university or local government official that decides to defy” the statewide edict.
But even as the two said they would immediately ask a state appeals court to wade into the fight, resistance to their campaign against mandatory masks was continuing in some quarters. On Wednesday, school district and municipal officials in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Houston continued to roll out new masking rules aimed at slowing the rampage of COVID-19 across one of the nation’s hottest infection zones.
“The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates,” Abbott said in a statement hardening his stance against defiant local officials. The governor said he’ll “vigorously fight” in court to “protect the rights and freedoms of all Texans.”
Abbott’s actions echo those of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a fellow Republican, who is embroiled in legal fights with parents seeking mask mandates for their children’s schools and companies wanting to require vaccine passports of customers.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — a Republican firebrand who spearheaded Texas’ lawsuit asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 2020 election in favor of ex-President Donald Trump — added to the controversy with his own statement.
“This isn’t the first time we have dealt with activist characters,” Paxton said, referring to elected officials in two of his state’s biggest cities. “Attention-grabbing judges and mayors have defied executive orders before, when the pandemic first started, and the courts ruled on our side — the law.”
The standoff against local officials over COVID restrictions reprises a fight that went to the Texas Supreme Court several times last year. Abbott initially resisted local mask ordinances and business closures, only to change course as the pandemic heightened and impose a statewide mask ordinance and sharp reductions on business operations.
The state high court ultimately upheld Abbott’s edicts, but often did so in sharply divided opinions that questioned how far the governor’s powers go during an emergency.
Abbott’s statement Wednesday was his first in response to orders issued Monday by two different Texas judges, who gave temporary permission to elected leaders in San Antonio and Dallas to impose mask requirements in local schools and publicly owned facilities in spite of the governor’s mask ban.
Both judges justified their decisions by citing Abbott’s recent call for Texas hospitals to defer optional procedures to free up more beds for COVID patients, as well as dire warnings by local health officials about the need to protect schoolchildren headed back to class in a few days. Children younger than 12 don’t qualify for vaccinations, and Texas’s statewide adult vaccination rate has stagnated at less than 50%.
Dallas County Judge Tonya Parker, in her order, said Abbott’s call for out-of-state medical workers to come help Texas hospitals with COVID cases was “inconsistent with a refusal to permit local governmental authorities to implement reasonable mitigation measures such as face mask requirements.”
Parker’s order blocked the governor’s edict statewide until she holds a more in-depth hearing Aug. 24.
Abbott’s lawyers said the judge had no authority to block the governor’s order statewide at the request of a single county official.
“It is the governor, not the trial court, which the Legislature has empowered to decide whether a given order — or the decision to suspend a given law — is ‘sound’ or ‘reliable,’” Texas’s lawyers said.
Clay Jenkins, Dallas county’s top elected official, wasted no time in expanding his mandatory masking order on Wednesday to include all child-care centers, public schools and commercial entities as well as county facilities.
‘Enemy Is the Virus’
“The enemy is not each other,” Jenkins said in a statement. “The enemy is the virus, and we must all do all that we can to protect public health. School districts and governments closest to the people should make decisions on how best to keep students and others safe.”
County officials in the Houston area also sued the governor over his mask ban, saying different areas of the state require different protective measures. Public officials in Harris County and Fort Bend County, which make up a substantial part of Houston, claimed Abbott is usurping power the legislature gave to local officials to manage emergencies.
“In his orders, Abbott will suspend two to three laws specifically by name, and then he’ll say ‘any other laws that could allow a local official to do something inconsistent with what I’m doing,’” said Christian Menefee, Harris County attorney. “That’s not how a democratic society works. You have separation of powers.”
Bexar County Judge Antonia Arteaga suspended Abbott’s ban on face mask ordinances in San Antonio until Aug. 16, when she’ll consider extending her block on Abbott’s order at a second Zoom hearing.
In Florida, DeSantis last month issued an executive order that threatened to withhold state funding from school districts that required students to wear masks. Some districts rebuked the governor and are instituting face-covering mandates as virus cases and hospitalizations continue to swell across Florida.
“Our view is of course this is a decision for the parent to make, just given the uncertainty about what it means particularity for a lot of the young kids to be in that,” DeSantis said in a press conference on Wednesday. “We believe the parent rather than the government should ultimately be able to make that decision.”