HOUSTON (CN) — Texas county officials on Tuesday got the state’s top law enforcement officer’s blessing to add a condition to courthouse access: They can mandate masks be worn by everyone entering the building.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said officials can also require masks for entry into any county-owned, or controlled, buildings in a letter to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, whose office is in the county seat Houston.
Paxton’s nonbinding advisory opinion may seem redundant due to Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order, issued July 2, requiring everyone to wear masks in buildings and outdoors if social distancing is not possible, with a few exceptions.
But should Abbott lift the order, Paxton’s letter specifies county officials would still have the authority to force people to wear masks in courthouses and county buildings under state law.
Judges also have latitude to make that call, the attorney general said.
“Judges possess broad inherent authority to control orderly proceedings in their courtrooms, and pursuant to that authority they could require individuals in the courtroom to wear facial coverings if necessary to maintain order and safety,” Paxton wrote.
Ryan asked Paxton to weigh in on the mask questions in mid-June, two weeks before a spike in Covid-19 cases led Abbott to slam the brakes on the state’s reopening plan, order all bars to close, restaurants to dial back their dine-in capacity from 75% to 50% and people to wear masks.
Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen’s deputies handle security at Houston’s downtown courthouses and they have been making people wear masks to enter for several weeks.
If they do not have one, the deputies give them a blue surgical mask so they can take care of their business at the courthouse, said Precinct 1 spokesman Kevin Quinn.
Under Abbott’s order, law enforcement can fine people $250 if they are caught not wearing a mask after receiving a written or verbal warning.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Monday that Houston police will start fining repeat offenders—Abbott’s order bars jailing mask scofflaws—after initially allowing people to voluntary comply with the governor’s mask mandate.
Houston police spokesman Victor Senties said HPD officers have also been handing out masks to citizens. He said he did not know how many no-mask fines HPD officers have issued pursuant to Turner’s new directive.
“It’s way too soon. We haven’t gotten any information back to say if we have or have not” issued any fines, Senties said Monday when reached by phone.
Turner said July marked the worst month yet for Houston’s battle against Covid-19.
“Our #COVID19 positive cases and the number of deaths doubled compared to the four previous months, March—June,” Turner wrote on Twitter Monday.
He complained too many Houstonians are letting their guard down.
“There are too many street parties, house parties, zydecos on the corners, backyard parties, and more happening in our city especially when individuals are not wearing masks,” he tweeted.
As of Monday afternoon, there were 32,426 active Covid-19 cases in Harris County and the respiratory illness had killed 766 residents, according to the county’s public health department.