State, local leaders battle over lifting of mask mandate in Texas

The Texas Attorney General is throwing his support behind Governor Greg Abbott's decision to lift the statewide mask mandate.

The Twitter account for the Texas Attorney General's Office shared a tweet this morning, stating the office is looking into 'every avenue possible' to fight Austin about continuing to require masks through a local ordinance.

"The state-wide mask mandate is lifted today. Yet once again, Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown are trying to figure out how they can buck state law and resist GovAbbott," the tweet said. "We’re looking at every avenue available to stop them. More to come."

Mayor Steve Adler responded to pressure from the state with the comment: "From the State Leaders Who Brought All Texas Residents,"No Power/No Water", Now Say "No Masks" 

The mayor issued a statement in a press release Wednesday evening saying:

"Judge 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, to keep as many people as alive as possible, to safely open up schools to more in-person learning and safely more businesses. We will fight Governor Abbott and Attorney General Paxton’s assault against doctors and data for as long as we possibly can."

"Wearing masks is perhaps the most important thing we can do to slow the spread of COVID-19, to further open schools to more students for in-person learning, and to increasingly open businesses safely while minimizing the risk of any need to pull back. The Governor’s order and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s efforts to end mask mandates creates ambiguity about masks where none should exist."

"I believe leaders need to be clear and unambiguous in their communications and messaging about masking. Masks work! The Governor and Attorney General are simply wrong. So again, #MaskUpATX."

RELATED: As states ease mask rules, workers concerned over personal safety amid ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

Adler says the Texas Health and Safety Code gives local authorities certain permissions. "The governing body of your municipality or the Commissioner's court of a county may enforce any law that is reasonably necessary to protect the public health," said Adler reading from section 121.003 of the health and safety code.  

City Council member Greg Casar responded by calling out the state for incidents during the coronavirus outbreak and recent winter storms. He ended his response with a firm: "We'll see you in court."

Last summer, Austin City Council passed an ordinance allowing the local health authority to make laws to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Requiring masks in Austin and Travis County businesses is one of the laws the health authority put in place. 

The Texas AG's account later posted a letter addressed to Adler and Brown, telling them that they have until 6 p.m. Wednesday to rescind "any local mask mandates or business-operating restrictions, retract any public statements, and come into full compliance with GA-34," or face a lawsuit.

RELATED: Poll: Sharp divide between rural and urban areas on mask wearing

"We have already taken you to court under similar circumstances," the letter reads. "You lost. If you continue to flout the law in this manner, we'll take you to court again and you will lose again."

"I have no ability, even if I wanted, to rescind this by six o'clock. It's not mine to rescind. But, in any event, even if I could, I wouldn't because it is the right thing to do," said Adler.  

"We're not going to rescind this order. We've only got 9 percent of our county vaccinated. And until we're closer to 80 percent, which is what the scientists say is herd immunity, we can't let up and we can't take the masks off," Brown said. 

Adler and Brown echo interim health authority Dr. Mark Escott's fears that a third surge in COVID-19 cases could happen if people don't continue to take precautions to slow the spread. 

"We believe in masking. We know it works. We saw the dramatic impact that the masking mandate had when it was issued by the governor on July 2 with, almost two weeks to the date, a substantial and sustained decrease in transmission. We need that to continue," Escott said during a Travis County Commissioners meeting Tuesday. 

RELATED: Masks will continue to be required within the City of Austin

"We are so close to being able to have this virus in our rearview mirror. Our biggest risk, at this point, is people think we're already there because we're not," said Adler. 

No matter what the courts decide, businesses still have the ability to require customers to take precautions. 

"My hope is that businesses, no matter what anybody does, continue to encourage people to wear masks and require people to wear masks," Brown said. 

Masks will continue to be required within the City of Austin


On Tuesday, city and county leaders agreed to continue to allow an existing health department mandate to stand, regardless of updated ordinances by the governor. The health authority's mandate is in effect until April 15 unless it is modified or extended before then. 

The mayor acknowledged his order and the county judge's order may be superseded by the state, but also noted the governor supported Austin allowing the health authority to make laws last summer.

"When our local health authority, our expert, apolitically comes to us and says this is important and this is something in our city that we should all be doing, then I need to support that," said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. 

So requiring masks in businesses will remain a Class C misdemeanor in Austin, although local officials said they hope to rely more on education than enforcement.