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Austin And Travis County Officials Mandate Mask-Wearing In City And County Property, Public Schools

A sign requiring face coverings at Mission Funeral Home in Austin.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT

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Austin and Travis County officials are mandating people over the age of 2 wear a mask on public property, including in buildings owned by the city and county, and in public schools.

"Today's Order to require masks in certain places is both to support Austin ISD's decision to protect children and the city's duty to protect its employees and the community," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in an emailed statement.

On Tuesday, local public health officials said a surge in COVID-19 cases paired with a shortage of health care workers meant the region was running out of available ICU beds; just two were available for a population of 2.4 million.

"The Order requires masks in public schools and inside city buildings as part of my commitment to use all available tools to keep this community safe. These are necessary yet difficult decisions, but those guided by the data and doctors will remain our North Star," Adler said.

Adler told KUT that his office is considering extending the order to include spaces such as private businesses.

People who don't follow the new rules could face being removed from public property or a fine up to $1,000. There are several exceptions to the mandate, including for those who are actively eating and drinking or exercising outside.

The new requirements, issued by Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown, go into effect at midnight. They defy an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting municipalities in the state from requiring people to wear masks.

It's unclear if Abbott will seek legal action against Austin and Travis County. A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request to comment for this story.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have already challenged a similar order by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. Paxton and Abbott called on Texas’ 5th Court of Appeals to strike down the mandate, which Jenkins announced Wednesday. Similar mask mandates have been ordered in Bexar and Harris counties.

On Monday, Austin ISD said it will require students and staff wear masks in school buildings when classes start next week.

Brown told KUT he hoped the order would make rules more uniform for all school districts in the Austin area. He pointed out Pflugerville ISD’s first day of school is this week and added that Manor, Del Valle and Eanes ISDs haven’t enacted mask requirements ahead of in-person learning.

He said school districts should be able to protect families amid surging cases of the delta variant, and that he hopes judges would side with local mandates if challenged by the state.

“As the head of emergency management for Travis County, I also have the right and the duty and the responsibility to put the health and safety of our kids first. So that’s what I’m doing,” he said. “So I think the action of the school districts, my own actions here and the other county judges around the state are completely consistent with Texas law. And I hope that the courts uphold our decisions.”

Public health officials recommend all people, even those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, wear masks in public to block the spread of the delta variant of the virus.

KUT's Andrew Weber contributed to this report.

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