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State Judge Says Austin And Travis County Can Keep Their Local Mask Mandates

Jeff Levine places a protective face mask over the statue of Steve Ray Vaughn at Auditorium Shores on April 16, 2020.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Jeff Levine places a mask over the statue of Steve Ray Vaughn at Auditorium Shores last April.

Austin and Travis County can continue their local mask mandates even though a statewide order bans them, a state judge ruled Friday.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued almost immediately after Austin said it would keep mask rules in place despite the governor's emergency orders earlier this month. He asked for a court order blocking the rules while the case is heard.

Local officials argue state law allows them to enact health-based restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

State District Judge Lora Livingston on Friday denied the state's request for an injunction, siding with Austin and Travis County. The decision will likely be appealed.

Shortly after the ruling, Travis County Judge Andy Brown told KUT he hopes Paxton doesn't appeal and the case moves ahead on its merits.

"I think everybody in Texas should be very concerned that the attorney general does not agree that local authorities — local health authorities — should be able to make their own determinations about what to do in cases of outbreaks," he said.

Attorneys for Austin and Travis County argued in court Friday that because the local rules were allowed to stand during previous statewide orders, the state didn't show an immediate need to put a halt to them.

Leslie Dippel, an attorney representing Travis County, said the local and state orders can coexist. She said the local rules fill in gaps not covered by the governor's order, which stripped guidelines that have proved effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in the Austin area.

"They are taking action to stop the spread, not hindering it," she said. "They are basic mask and basic hygiene ... procedures that we're all very familiar with, and they are working. They've been in place for a year and [have been] proven to be effective."

Arguing for the state, Todd Dickerson called the local orders an end run around Gov. Greg Abbott's authority by an unelected official. He said giving that level of power to Austin Public Health's interim health authority is a misreading of state law and that the governor has ultimate say over how the state responds to a disaster.

"There's no way to read the Texas Disaster Act and come to that conclusion," he said, adding that, whether you agree with it or not, it's the law and that the "wisdom of [lawmakers'] decision" on the framework "has to be respected."

The lawsuit is the latest skirmish over local control relating to the pandemic. In December, Austin and Travis Count officials tried to enact a curfew on businesses ahead of New Year's, but the Texas Supreme Court sided with the state, granting an injunction that effectively killed the curfew hours before it was set to take effect.

KUT reached out to Paxton's office for comment on Friday's ruling, but has not yet heard back.

This is a developing story.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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