Austin can keep enforcing mask mandate for at least two weeks until trial, judge says

A sign outside a South Austin store asks customers to follow COVID-19 precautions. Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune

Austin and Travis County residents will be required to keep their masks on after a district judge delayed action on Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to end the mandates immediately.

By REESE OXNER  Texas Texas

Austin and Travis County officials can continue enforcing their mask mandates after a district judge delayed action on the Texas attorney general’s request to immediately stop the mandates.

That means city and county officials can continue to require masks until at least March 26, when District Judge Lora Livingston will hold a trial.

“People have been wearing masks for a year. I don’t know that two more weeks is going to matter one way or the other,” Livingston said during a Friday hearing, according to the Austin-American Statesman, which first reported the news.

Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the city of Austin and Travis County on Thursday — following through on his earlier threat to do so if those officials did not roll back their mask mandates after Gov. Greg Abbott lifted nearly all coronavirus restrictions.

“I told Travis County and the City of Austin to comply with state mask law. They blew me off,” Paxton tweeted Thursday. “So, once again, I’m dragging them to court. [Austin Mayor Steve] Adler will never do the right thing on his own. His obstruction won’t stop me from keeping Texas free and open.”

Paxton’s lawyers pushed for an injunction hearing Friday, but Livingston said it wouldn’t be fair to give the defendants only a day to prepare, the Statesman reported. Livingston said after she hears arguments March 26, she’ll rule the same day.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown counts the two-week delay as a win. It buys the area some time to keep requiring masks while residents get vaccinated. It will also keep the mandate through most schools’ spring break holidays.

Abbott’s latest order states “no jurisdiction” can implement local restrictions, except a county judge and only when hospitalizations in a region exceed 15%.

“This case raises a pressing question: who is ultimately responsible for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergencies?” Paxton’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. “The Texas Disaster Act charges the Governor—not an assortment of thousands of county judges, city mayors, and local health officials—with leading the State’s response to a statewide emergency.”


 Read the lawsuit Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed against Austin and Travis County.(263.3 KB)DOWNLOAD

But Brown and Adler argue that local public health officials maintain the authority to create orders on the local level to protect their community from pandemics. It’s different, they argued, from using emergency powers.

Brown said if the judge rules differently, it will have “huge ramifications” on local government moving forward.

Local government needs to be able to move quickly on issues of public health, he said, emphasizing that it’s “the whole point of the way our state government is set up.”

Paxton did not respond to a request for comment.

Public health experts and lawmakers in Texas and nationwide have criticized Abbott for his decision to remove mandates.

Although Texas’ situation has improved, an average of almost 200 residents are dying from the virus every day. As of March 10, 9% of Texans have been fully vaccinated. But not everyone qualifies for the vaccine yet.

The pandemic has especially impacted Texans of color — including in El Paso, where Paxton previously blocked a county judge from ordering nonessential businesses to shut down. Black and Hispanic Texans face systemic barriers to being vaccinated despite being more likely to suffer the virus’s worst consequences.

“We return to court March 26. No matter what happens then, we will continue to be guided by doctors and data,” Adler tweeted. “Masking works.”

 The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.