Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing Austin and Travis county officials in an effort to force them to rescind their local mask orders, he announced Thursday.
“I told Travis County and the City of Austin to comply with the state mask law,” Paxton said. tweeted. “They blew me away. So, once again, I will take you to court.”
Texas lifted nearly all coronavirus restrictions on Wednesday, including Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask mandate and occupancy restrictions across the state. Abbott’s order said that “no jurisdiction” can require a person to wear a mask in public if the area does not meet a certain number of coronavirus hospitalizations. But Austin and Travis County health officials have said they will continue to enforce safety protocols, setting the stage for another fight over the pandemic response between state and local officials.
“[Travis County] Judge Brown and I will fight to defend and enforce the rules of our local health officials for as long as possible using all the power and tools available, “Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement Thursday. , science and data when it comes to the pandemic and we’re doing everything we can to keep that promise. “
Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who chairs the county government, blamed Paxton for “once again not making the health of our community his priority.”
“I will continue to listen to our public health authority, medical professionals and the CDC, who have consistently said that masks save lives,” Brown said in a statement.
Paxton gave city and county leaders an ultimatum Wednesday: Rescind local orders by 6 pm “Otherwise, on behalf of the state of Texas, I will sue you,” Paxton wrote in a letter.
Local officials refused to back down.
Abbott’s order defines areas with high hospitalizations as places where the proportion of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 exceeds 15%. In those places, local officials can impose certain restrictions, but cannot impose a penalty “of any kind” for violating a mask mandate, the order says.
Less than 6% of hospital beds in the Austin trauma service area are currently occupied by COVID-19 patients. There have been more than 2,200 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Travis County in the past two weeks. More than 890 people have died there since the pandemic began. Illnesses and deaths in the pandemic have disproportionately affected people of color across the state.
Brown said the authority to enforce the local mask mandate comes from the county health authority, not Brown’s emergency powers. Brown told The Texas Tribune on Wednesday that it means the order should be upheld in court.
“I listen to doctors, not politicians like our attorney general,” Brown said.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal fights for the governor’s power during a public health crisis. Paxton’s office successfully defeated an effort by Travis and Austin officials to restrict in-person dining at restaurants around New Years. And in El Paso, Paxton won a battle last November against County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, who had tried to order the temporary closure of nonessential businesses.
Last week, Abbott announced that Texas was “100% open.” It was lifting the mask mandate, first imposed during a wave of COVID-19 cases last summer, and allowing all businesses, including bars, restaurants, retail stores and sports stadiums, to operate at full capacity.
The decision drew strong criticism from several local leaders, including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Round Rock joined Austin in demanding masks until April 29. Other cities, including Houston and San Antonio, have continued to require that people wear masks in city buildings.
Disclosure: Steve Adler, former chairman of the Tribune board, has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a non-profit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in Tribune journalism. Find a complete list of them here.