Travis County judge holds hearing on school mask mandate lawsuit

The mask mandate case did not take place in a Travis County courtroom, instead the hearing Monday before Judge Catherine Mauzy was done online and involved a large group of lawyers for educators and the attorney general's office. 

The lawsuit, filed by South Texas school district La Joya ISD, challenges the executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott that bans local governments from enacting mask mandates.

The groups trying to overturn the governor's ban want a decision before a temporary restraining order expires on Sunday. The hearing, like the overall debate, is a struggle between the letter of state law versus local power to manage a crisis.

The hearing began with attorney Kevin O'Hanlon and Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez, who testified he is "concerned we have not reached a peak" in the latest surge of COVID-19. Melendez admitted that "masks do not provide a panacea," but said "a mask is one of the most mitigating tools we can use."

The fear is the current viral outbreak, which has started to show up in younger children, will increase because a vaccine is not available for people under the age of 12. Assistant Attorney General Daniel Haley, in cross examination, challenged the legality of local mandates. "Should doctors follow the law," asked Haley. Melendez answered; "I agree with you, we should follow the law."

A similar exchange took place with the Austin/Travis County Health Authority Desmar Walkes. She and Haley spared over the need for a mask mandate. Walkes testified "the level of intervention that's chosen for a given illness is based upon its impact on the public health.  And there have been no other mandates that have been put in place for those illnesses to date, because their impact has not been as great."

Haley seized on that and Walkes did acknowledge the flu and respiratory infections do impact public health, but have not trigger mask mandates and pointed out those illnesses haven't caused a pandemic.

The benefits of masks were argued earlier when plaintiffs Attorney Mike Siegel brought up how surges in the Austin metro were reduced. Walkes explained "we were using the non-pharmaceutical interventions."

"Do you believe that taking away mask requirements could be one of those variables that make the spread of the virus worse?" Siegel asked, to which Walkes replied she does.

Siegle asked a broader question: "Do you believe a universal mask requirement would improve our chances of reducing the spread of COVID-19?" Walkes agreed.

Attorneys for the state pointed out that the governor's ban does not prevent anyone from wearing a mask, if they want. But Walkes indicated that's not enough, saying "everybody has to be masked to effectively protect everybody in the room."

Attorneys for the school districts claim all they want is what they had that helped them get through the previous school year. Attorneys for the State will be allowed to present evidence on Tuesday.

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