The Texas Attorney General’s office officially filed suit in district court Thursday to ask for a temporary restraining order on the local mask rule until a hearing is held.
Attorney General Ken Paxton gave the Austin mayor, Travis County judge, and local health authority until 6 pm Wednesday to rescind the local mask mandate or face off with the state in court. The order was not rescinded and Paxton followed through with his threat.
Who is responsible for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic? That's the question Paxton hopes the courts will answer thanks to his latest lawsuit against Austin and Travis County.
Paxton argues the Texas Disaster Act gives that responsibility to the governor, not county judges, mayors, or local health authorities. Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown believe the Texas Health and Safety Code says otherwise.
"All we are trying to do is follow the orders of our health authority, which is something that, frankly, counties across Texas do. And if what Ken Paxton is saying is that counties can no longer follow their health authority rules, I think that's something that should give serious pause to counties across the state," said Brown.
The City of Austin and Travis County currently have a law in place requiring businesses to mandate facemasks. The rule was created by the local health authority, Dr. Mark Escott, who was granted temporary power to make laws that protect the community from COVID-19 by the city and county last summer under the Texas Health and Safety Code.
Paxton said the governor’s order lifting the statewide mask mandate, which took effect Wednesday, supersedes that local order.
"The governor made an order saying that I cannot do emergency orders, which I have not done. This is Dr. Mark Escott, our health authority, ordering businesses to order their customers to wear masks. And it doesn't surprise me that our attorney general doesn't know the difference between those two things, but they're completely different sections of code," Brown said.
The argument between the state, city, and county over the mask mandate erupted on Twitter. Paxton took shots at local leaders saying they must not be thinking clearly from "oxygen deprivation from quintuple-masking." Adler fired back tweeting, "from the people who brought you no water and no electricity: no masks." His tweet was in reference to the effects of Texas' winter storm on the power grid and local water system.
"There's no scientific reason to end the mask mandate at this point. All of the data, all of the doctors are saying that we should all continue to wear masks and we're going to be guided by that. And that's what we're going to continue to do for however long we can do it," said Adler.
The case is now making its way through the court system with both sides confident in their position.
Adler said he doesn't know of any Texas court that has allowed state leadership to overrule the health protection rules of a local health authority. Paxton said city and county leaders tried to undermine state law before and lost and "They'll lose again."