After Gov. Greg Abbott mandated masks last year, local officials are fighting to continue forcing Texans to mask. While citizens have a part to play in fighting this latest example of local control, there is agreement that the situation has escalated to the point where the Texas Legislature must act.
A Facebook livestream on Friday morning featured several Democrat county and city officials resisting Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates. The event was hosted by the Workers Defense Fund, an organization in favor of raising the minimum wage and “immigrant rights”; the Texas AFL-CIO labor union; and San Antonio Councilmember Teri Castillo. Leftist group Local Progress was also credited.
Among the officials participating were Travis County Judge Andy Brown, El Paso County Commissioner David Stout, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, Austin City Councilmember Greg Casar, Waco City Councilmember Kelly Palmer, and Denton City Councilmember Deb Armintor. Elected school board members Anne Sung of Houston ISD and Miguel Farias of Edinburg CISD also joined.
Menefee pointed out Abbott opened the door for these mandates last year with his executive orders. “Those executive orders were designed with measures to keep people safe, whether it was occupancy limits, or stay-at-home orders, or mask mandates.” Sung agreed. “The governor helped us with [universal masking in Houston ISD last year] with his mask mandate.”
Officials argued for the power to mandate masks again because of alleged scientific evidence and reportedly shrinking hospital capacity. However, a randomized controlled trial—RCTs are considered the “gold standard of medical research”—from last year tested mask effectiveness against the Chinese coronavirus. It found no “statistically significant” difference in infection rates between those who did and didn’t wear masks.
Still, these officials pushed for local control. Most prominent among them in the livestream was Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins (D), who has taken center stage in rebelling against Abbott. “We do need to push back against these attempts to erode local control because local government works best when it’s closest to the people.”
James Quintero of the Texas Public Policy Foundation said, “The Texas left believe a big lie about local control. That is, they think it allows local officials to operate carte blanche, as though they were sovereign entities. But they are certainly not. Local governments are extensions of the state and derive their powers thereof. This fact reveals an important truth: Local control is a tool, but it is not the rule.”
Local control has been a tense fight in Texas, with citizens on one side and local officials on the other. The fights can escalate to a point where the Texas Legislature feels compelled to at least consider getting involved. Two examples are local officials allowing homeless encampments and last year’s “defund the police” moves by Austin and Dallas city councils. Additionally, local officials continually hike property tax bills.
Are local mask mandates a signal that the Texas Legislature should put more checks and balances on local control?
“It certainly is. The Legislature certainly has the role and responsibility of keeping our local governments in check, and it’s needed now more than ever,” Charles Blain, president of Urban Reform, told Texas Scorecard. “Local governments will take every opportunity they can to expand their powers, and the Legislature needs to make it clear that when that happens, they are willing to act.”
Sarah Fields of the Texas Freedom Coalition believes citizens have a part to play at the local level, too. “Local government is the most accountable to its constituents. When elected officials like Mayor Adler and County Judge Jenkins defy executive orders, then it is truly up to the people to do something about it.”
She does agree the time has come, however, for the Texas Legislature to act. “The state of Texas needs to ban mask mandates, vaccine mandates—including employee mandates—and lockdowns through the legislative process, as laws that include criminal penalties are much harder to break than executive orders.”
In the meantime, these local officials may be willing to defy the Texas Supreme Court, as well. When asked what they would do if the high court sided with Abbott, Armintor responded with a smile: “Fight.” Last night on Twitter, after the court reinstated Abbott’s ban on mask mandates until a formal hearing, Jenkins said he will not rescind his contested mask mandate, but he would remove any penalties for “non-compliant businesses.” He amended the mandate this afternoon, but it still requires masking by all prekindergarten-12th grade schools. It’s also reported he intends to force county staff to vaccinate.
Multiple school districts have also announced they are keeping their mask mandates in place, and the Fort Worth City Council will vote Tuesday on whether or not to mandate masks in city buildings.