Local officials in a suburb of Austin have flouted an order from the governor and decreed their own new law: wear a mask in public, or be fined up to $1,000.
In an emergency meeting Monday, the Round Rock City Council unanimously voted to mandate masks in public, forcing every citizen over the age of 10 to wear a face covering “in public places when adequate social distancing is not possible” and requiring all businesses to post signs of the law.
Those who disobey can be whacked with expensive fines.
“A first time violation of the ordinance will result in a verbal or written warning. Ensuing violations are punishable by fines starting at $200 and escalating up to $1,000,” the city wrote.
The city council’s decision comes despite Texas Gov. Greg Abbott enacting a statewide order prohibiting local officials from directly punishing unmasked citizens, saying such a mandate would violate individual liberty. Some local officials, including Austin’s, had even enacted laws that could throw citizens in jail for six months if they didn’t wear a mask.
In response, on top of the governor’s order, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a warning to local officials across the state in May, warning them to stop their various “Orwellian” and “unlawful” decrees.
“Neither the county nor the city can impose civil or criminal penalties for not wearing a mask in public,” Paxton’s letter read. It also says the governor’s executive order has “the force and effect of law” and overrides local officials’ decrees.
“Because local governments cannot enact laws that are inconsistent with State law, any local order that purports to impose a civil or criminal penalty for not wearing a face covering is void and unenforceable.”
Though they are no longer allowed to imprison unmasked citizens, Abbott has said that local governments may require businesses to require masks or be fined. Abbott also said Monday evening that even though he had not yet read Round Rock’s order, he “applauded” them for “stepping up and being one of the many communities across the state of Texas that has now imposed a mask requirement.”
Regarding fining individual citizens, Abbott added, “If it does impose a fine for people for not wearing a mask, that part seems like it would contradict my executive order.”
Several other Central Texas suburbs have followed after Round Rock, with officials in Hutto, Taylor, Leander, Georgetown, Cedar Park, and Marble Falls all enacting their own similar mask mandates, though without the fine on individual citizens. Businesses can still be charged $1,000, however, for not requiring masks.
Meanwhile, the current reality of the coronavirus in Texas: tragically, 2,393 of 29 million Texans have died from a coronavirus-related illness. This flu season, 6,737 Texans died from influenza and pneumonia.
Some argue local officials’ mask orders, fines, and jail threats are completely needless and harmful.
“Austin is not and has never been close to seeing our health care system overburdened, and the people here are not in any danger of lacking access to hospitals, treatment, or personal protective equipment,” wrote conservative think-tank Texas Public Policy Foundation regarding Austin’s similar local order. “The new restrictions on businesses only serve to scare the public into thinking they are highly susceptible to grave harm and even death if they don’t comply. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Round Rock’s order will take effect at 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, June 30, and will last until August 28.
Concerned citizens can contact the Round Rock City Council.