Texas Attorney General Threatens To Sue Austin-Travis County If It Doesn't Rescind Local Mask Mandate
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is threatening to sue Austin and Travis County leaders if they don’t rescind mask mandates and COVID restrictions on businesses by 6 p.m. today.
"City/county leaders must not be thinking clearly. Maybe it’s oxygen deprivation from quintuple-masking," he said in a tweet. "Whatever the case, they’ve tried this before. They lost."
The statewide mask mandate and restrictions on businesses were lifted this morning, but leaders in Austin and Travis County argue local rules regarding masking and other health protocols remain in effect.
When asked whether the city plans to undo these rules, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said: "No."
“Judge [Andy] Brown and I will continue to do everything within our power, continuing existing health authority orders and using every tool available to us to reduce the spread of the virus ...," he later said in a statement. "We will fight Governor Abbott and Attorney General Paxton’s assault against doctors and data for as long as we possibly can."
A City Council ordinance authorizes the local health authority to establish public health rules. Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin Public Health, adopted rules in July that govern people and locations within the city and Travis County. They’re in place through April 15, but could be extended.
Under these rules, businesses and other sites must require people to wear a face covering. Businesses have to disinfect often-touched items and require 6 feet of distance between groups of 10 or fewer. They also must post signs about masks and hygiene measures.
People are also supposed to wear a face covering when outside their homes, according to the rules.
County officials say the rules cannot be rescinded without a meeting of the Travis County Commissioners Court, and that the 6 p.m. deadline would force a meeting that would violate Texas open meeting laws.
Officials say people can complain about noncompliance to the rules by calling 311. Each offense is punishable by a fine of no more than $2,000, according to a city ordinance. A city spokesperson said the city will keep having "enforcement teams" respond to these complaints "as they have been since July."
"The enforcement teams work to educate individuals and businesses on the importance of face coverings/social distancing, and also can and have, issued citations," the spokesperson said.
Abbott’s order lifting COVID rules says “no person may be required by any jurisdiction to wear or to mandate the wearing of a face covering.” It also says “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.”
Adler released a statement Tuesday acknowledging Abbott’s order annuls conflicting rules from mayors or county judges. But, he said, rules from the health authority remain in place.
“The public health authority is responsible for the control of disease outbreak in Austin-Travis county and will continue to utilize the rules he has set forth in helping to further mitigate the risk of spread,” Adler said. “The rules issued by Dr. Escott will serve to not only decrease the spread of disease but to also increase public confidence in the safety of local businesses.”
In a letter to Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown on Wednesday, Paxton said only businesses can require masks or establish COVID-19-related operating limits.
“It does not rest with jurisdictions like the City of Austin or Travis County or their local health authorities,” Paxton said. “Nor do they have the authority to threaten fines for non-compliance.”
To clarify, the Austin-Travis County health authority rules don’t establish operating limits for businesses, but they do say a person in charge of a site must “limit the number of individuals who gather or stand together to ten or less.”
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar told KUT he believes the city’s actions are legal.
“After important legal analysis has been done, it’s clear that it is legal and right for us to continue to enforce the City Council ordinance that allows Dr. Escott, our health authority, to continue to require masks,” he said.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
KUT's Audrey McGlinchy, Andrew Weber and Nathan Bernier contributed to this report.