JudicialLocal NewsTravis County Judge Upholds Austin Mask Mandate, Conflicting Governor Abbott’s Order

The Austin mandate contradicts Abbott's order that lifted the statewide requirement, which says local authorities can't enforce mask rules.
March 26, 2021
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After an order from the governor prohibiting cities from enforcing mask orders, state District Judge Lora Livingston of Travis County ruled in favor of Austin’s continuing mask mandate today.

The City of Austin released a response urging citizens to follow the rule, backed by the force of law.

“Austin Public Health is urging the community to continue wearing masks to halt the spread of COVID-19 after a Court declined to grant the State of Texas an injunction voiding the local health authority’s mask mandate and related rules,” the release reads.

“The Court decision recognizes the importance of local rules in promoting public health in the community, keeping essential workers safe and ensuring our business community can thrive by driving down COVID-19 transmission.”

When Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate earlier this month, Austin and Travis County orders remained in place even though his order specifically rescinds them:

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“No jurisdiction may impose a penalty of any kind for failure to wear a face covering or failure to mandate that customers or employees wear face coverings, except that a legally authorized official may act to enforce trespassing laws and remove violators at the request of a business establishment or other property owner,” Abbott’s order reads.

The orders in Austin require businesses to enforce mask-wearing. Individuals must also wear masks when outside their own homes.

In response to defiance on the part of Austin and Travis County officials, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown on March 10 giving them an ultimatum to lift the mandate.

“Over the past 24 hours, Travis County and City of Austin officials announced that local orders requiring individuals to wear face masks while outside their homes will continue unabated, despite the issuance of Governor Abbott’s executive order GA-34, which states that as of today, ‘no person may be required by any jurisdiction to wear or to mandate the wearing of a face covering,’” Paxton’s letter reads.

“The decision to require masks or otherwise impose COVID-19-related operating limits is expressly reserved to private businesses on their own premises. It does not rest with jurisdictions like the City of Austin or Travis County or their local health authorities.”

Texas municipalities, especially counties and cities, have largely derived their powers to issue shutdowns and mask mandates from the same code that has empowered the governor: the Texas Disaster Act. In other words, the law authorizes mayors and county judges to be the fingers of the governor’s hand.

“The presiding officer of the governing body of an incorporated city or a county or the chief administrative officer of a joint board is designated as the emergency management director for the officer’s political subdivision,” the law reads.

“An emergency management director serves as the governor’s designated agent in the administration and supervision of duties under this chapter.  An emergency management director may exercise the powers granted to the governor under this chapter on an appropriate local scale.”

The scope of these powers has recently been hashed out in court, especially when local authorities issue orders that exceed the governor’s power. However, Travis County attorneys didn’t turn to the Texas Disaster Act for their authority before the judge.

Instead, they sheltered successfully under the Texas Health and Safety Code, arguing that the law grants local officials broad powers to regulate public health measures.

Paxton is expected to appeal the ruling.

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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.