Texas Sues Local Officials for Keeping Mask Rules in Place

The lawsuit follows an explicit threat from the Republican attorney general after the statewide mask mandate was lifted.

Bartender Alyssa Dooley, center, talks with customers at Mo’s Irish Pub in Houston Tuesday, March 2, the same day Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was lifting business capacity limits and the state’s mask mandate. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

(CN) — Launching yet another court battle over pandemic restrictions, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday sued local officials in the state’s capital city for their moves to keep mask mandates in place despite a statewide order from the governor that lifted mask rules.

The lawsuit filed in Travis County District Court comes a day after Paxton mocked leaders in the county and the city of Austin for sticking with local mask rules.

“City/county leaders must not be thinking clearly,” Paxton, a Republican, wrote on Twitter Wednesday as he threatened to sue. “Maybe it’s oxygen deprivation from quintuple-masking. Whatever the case, they’ve tried this before. They lost.”

In a previous lawsuit brought by Paxton’s office, the Texas Supreme Court blocked the city and county from limiting inside dining at restaurants around the New Year’s Eve holiday. Paxton cited that case and a previous state appeals court ruling against business restrictions in El Paso in the complaint filed Thursday.

In the new lawsuit, Texas asked the court to quickly block the local mask rules in Austin and Travis County.

“Defendants insist that they will continue enforcing their business and facemask requirements despite the fact that GA-34 nullified these provisions,” the lawsuit read, referring to the governor’s order. “Defendants know this is wrong.”

When asked for comment, an adviser to Travis County Judge Andy Brown, the county’s top elected official, acknowledged the lawsuit but did not directly address its merits.

“Most of our community agrees that masks save lives,” Malenie Areché Rodriguez said in a statement. “Travis County has not had to rely on enforcement of its orders to get our community to be responsible.”

In a statement, Austin Mayor Steve Adler suggested he would fight the lawsuit.

“Judge Brown and I will fight to defend and enforce our local health officials’ rules for as long as possible using all the power and tools available to us,” Adler said. “We promised to be guided by the doctors, science and data as concerns the pandemic and we do everything we can to keep that promise.”

Paxton’s mocking of local officials this week was a stark contrast to the more muted tone from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who said on Twitter that masks are “still strongly recommended along with other safe practices.”

Under Abbott’s latest executive order lifting the state’s months-long mask mandate, which went into effect Wednesday, county-level leaders can only keep certain public health restrictions in place if regional Covid-19 hospitalizations rise above a certain threshold – 15% of total hospital capacity for seven straight days.

Still, the officials in Austin and Travis County have argued that they can legally maintain local mask rules through directives from the area’s top public health official, as opposed to directives from the mayor or county executive.

“The health authority, Dr. Mark Escott…he is able to declare that businesses will be a health nuisance if they do not require people to wear masks,” Brown said in an interview with a local TV news station.

The lawsuit aside, it’s not clear how – or whether – authorities will actually enforce the local mask rules.

In a video posted to Facebook Wednesday, Adler said violators could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, though he acknowledged that enforcement would likely be slim, as it has been throughout the pandemic.

“We can’t enforce our way to compliance,” the mayor said. “It’s got to be something that we want to do, it has to be part of our culture.”

Abbott’s move to fully reopen Texas and lift the state’s mask mandate has been met with skepticism from many local officials, business owners and public health experts, though some influential business and restaurant groups have praised the move.

“Once again, the governor is striking the right balance by removing the heavy hand of government and allowing businesses to operate as they see fit,” Glenn Hammer, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said in a statement released by Abbott’s office.

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