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As COVID Cases Surge Again In Texas, State And Local Leaders Locked In Battle Over Masks

A person wearing a mask looks up from the atrium of the Texas Capitol building on Jan. 11.
Gabriel C. Pérez

Local Democratic officials from across Texas lambasted Gov. Greg Abbott and other state Republicans on Friday, saying they’re playing politics and risking lives.

At a virtual news conference, officials from four of the state’s largest counties, four cities and two school districts joined labor leaders in arguing that the governor’s orderblocking local officials from requiring masks has endangered Texans.

The number of children in Texas hospitalized with COVID-19 is at one of the highest levels seen since the pandemic began, a worrying trend as students head back to school.

In the 19-county North Texas region around Dallas and Fort Worth, there wereno staffed pediatric ICU beds available on Thursday evening to treat children with the most serious illness and injury.

“Your child will [have to] wait for another child to die, your child will just not get on a ventilator, [or] your child will be care-flighted to Temple or Oklahoma City, or wherever we can find them a bed,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said.

A spokesperson for Cook Children’s in Fort Worth toldCBS DFW on Thursday afternoon that the hospital was not yet forced to send ICU patients to other hospitals, but that it would “if the situation arises where we cannot accommodate a patient at our hospital.”

Infectious disease experts say a combination of masks, social distancing and vaccinations is the most effective strategy to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Children under 12 years old are particularly vulnerable right now, because they are not eligible to receive coronavirus vaccinations.

Jenkins also blamed the governor for a shortage of doctors and nurses to staff hospitals, saying Abbott failed to continue funding for additional temporary hospital staffers. Earlier this week, the governorannounced new funding to hire out-of-state health professionals.

Abbottsigned the order barring local governments from requiring people to wear masks in public settings in late July.

Local leaders in some of Texas’ largest counties and school districts haveissued orders requiring masks, openly violating the governor’s order.

That’s set off aseries of lawsuits, with Democratic local officials notching early court victories in defense of mask mandates, and state Republicans appealing to higher courts to defend the governor’s ability to limit what actions local governments can take to fight a public health emergency.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said Abbott’s directive is an abuse of the Texas Disaster Act. Under the act, the governor can bypass or suspend local laws to respond to a crisis. But Menefee said the governor had essentially turned the logic behind the Disaster Act on its head.

“He’s using that law now to do nothing more than to say, ‘my view of people’s constitutional rights is that they should not have to wear masks, and therefore, I’m going to use this law to suspend any other law you might use to keep people safe.’” Menefee said. “It’s wrong, it’s likely unconstitutional, and I will say, it’s a very scary time.”

Abbott has added an item to the special session agenda that would codify into state law his order banning local governments from enacting such mandates. The Senate passed a version of the legislation on Thursday. The local leaders urged lawmakers against passing such legislation.

Meanwhile, more cities, school boards and county governments — including Austin ISD, the City of Austin and Travis County— are openly defying the governor’s ban on mask mandates.

On Thursday, the Denton City Council held an emergency meeting topass a mask requirement in the city. Council member Deb Armintor characterized the move as both essential for public safety, and also an act of solidarity with other local leaders.

“If they’re going to come after you, they’ll come after us too, and we are stronger together in numbers,” she said.

San Marcos ISD also voted to require masks Thursday at a specially called meeting, as did Del Valle ISD.

The fight over whether a government has the authority to require people to wear masks will likely land in the state’s supreme court. All eight sitting justices are Republicans.

In the meantime, Democratic leaders say they’ll continue to require masking as long as they’re able to.

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Copyright 2021 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Christopher Connelly is a KERA reporter based in Fort Worth. Christopher joined KERA after a year and a half covering the Maryland legislature for WYPR, the NPR member station in Baltimore. Before that, he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow at NPR – one of three post-graduates who spend a year working as a reporter, show producer and digital producer at network HQ in Washington, D.C.
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