AUSTIN — While countless Texans are still struggling to provide for their families after the last year of government-mandated shutdowns, state and local politicians are busy bickering about who has the power to fine and punish unmasked citizens.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton took to Twitter Wednesday announcing his threat to sue Austin officials if they choose to defy the governor’s latest executive order.
“City/county leaders must not be thinking clearly. Maybe it’s oxygen deprivation from quintuple-masking. Whatever the case, they’ve tried this before. They lost,” Paxton tweeted.
On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order to end mask mandates and “open Texas 100 percent” takes effect—but Austin officials say they’ll still force face coverings on the whole city.
“The mask requirement will continue in our county,” tweeted Democrat Travis County Judge Andy Brown on Tuesday. “Today, the Commissioners Court voted to follow the rules set by the health authority. We will require masks in businesses & declare a place a public health nuisance if it fails to follow these rules.”
On top of that, Austin City Councilmember Greg Casar said he believes the city’s recent health authority rules—including fining a citizen $2,000 for not wearing a mask—are legal despite the governor’s order. In an interview, Casar encouraged citizens to call 311 and report others for not obeying the rules.
But Abbott’s order explicitly states, “This executive order shall supersede any conflicting order issued by local officials in response to the COVID-19 disaster, but only to the extent that such a local order restricts services allowed by this executive order or allows gatherings restricted by this executive order.”
Abbott’s latest order also eliminated jail time as an available punishment; last year, Austin officials’ order included imprisoning a citizen for up to six months for not wearing a mask.
So, can Austin officials actually enforce their latest mask-policing rule? Mayor Steve Adler admitted late Tuesday, “We can’t enforce our way to compliance,” and punishing and fining will be limited, if there is any at all.
Indeed, other city officials from around the state, including San Antonio and Houston, are not even attempting to follow Austin’s mask-policing lead.
“The governor’s order made it clear that cities could not pass any mandate to supersede his rollback, unless the positivity rate reached a certain threshold for consecutive days,” said Mary Benton, a spokeswoman for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in an email. “Mayor [Sylvester Turner is requiring employees and visitors to wear masks in all city owned facilities, but has not announced plans to require anything similar to Austin’s measure.”
Texas Scorecard asked Abbott’s office if Austin’s actions violated his executive order, but Abbott did not respond for comment.
Meanwhile, Paxton said in his letter he’s giving the mayor and county judge until 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday to rescind their local mask mandates or be sued by the State of Texas.
“We have already taken you to court under similar circumstances,” Paxton wrote, referring to his recent suit against the City of Austin for their New Year’s Eve curfew. “You Lost. If you continue to flout the law in this manner, we’ll take you to court again and you will lose again.”