Austin, Travis County plan to enforce masking despite governor’s order

Photo of a stack of blue, disposable surgical masks
Austin and Travis County officials are pushing back against the Texas governor's decision to lift a statewide mask mandate. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Austin and Travis County officials are pushing back against the Texas governor's decision to lift a statewide mask mandate. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Officials from Austin and Travis County will use city and county health authority Mark Escott’s jurisdiction to enforce a local mask requirement despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to lift the statewide mask mandate. While Abbott has said that local orders are unenforceable without a correlated state mandate, Mayor Steve Adler said Escott’s orders still have “the force of law.”

Under the set of standing emergency rules renewed by Escott on March 4, Austin and Travis County businesses are instructed to require masking from staff and patrons. In Austin, individuals must also wear a face covering outside of their own household.

“While vaccine administration is underway, we are still not in a place of herd immunity and need people to wear face coverings in public and around non-household members so we can avoid another surge of cases,” Adler said in a statement.

Escott’s standing orders have been in effect since August of last year and are currently set to extend through April 15.

“The enforcement of those will stay in place, because we have to continue to protect our community so that we can save lives,” Escott said at a March 9 joint session of Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court.

In terms of actual enforcement, Escott only mentioned individuals who defy mask requirements while on a business’s premises.

“If an individual enters a business that requires a mask and is not wearing a mask, and they are asked to leave and they do not, they're trespassing. That's a crime, and they can be arrested for that. They can't be arrested for not wearing a mask, but they can be arrested for trespassing. If that trespassing involves violence or threats, is going to increase the level of the crime that's involved,” he said.

Travis County commissioners voted March 9 to officially approve the ongoing enforcement of Escott’s orders, including declaring a “public health nuisance” if residents defy the rules at local businesses. Brown encouraged residents to continue masking up and to support businesses that follow city and county rules regarding masks.

“If we had these numbers a year ago, there’d be no question about wearing masks and the necessity to wear masks,” he said. “I know that it’s been going on for a long time, but this is still a raging pandemic with different variants floating around Texas.”

City representatives mentioned additional means of enforcement. At the joint session, City Attorney Anne Morgan said that defiance of Escott’s orders could result in a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, and that the rules would be enforced by the same departments that had enforced mayoral orders relating to coronavirus safety precautions.

State officials have challenged coronavirus restrictions in Austin and Travis County before. On New Year’s Eve weekend, the city and county placed a curfew on bars and restaurants and prohibited in-person dining service after 10:30 p.m. After Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton legally challenged the order with multiple appeals, the Texas Supreme Court announced it would block further enforcement of the order Jan. 1. The case remains tied up in the 3rd Court of Appeals, Adler said.

Adler drew a distinction between an enforcement of orders coming from his and Brown’s offices and orders set by Escott, who is locally authorized to enforce rules that protect public health, per a July ordinance by the city and county.

“The governor has obviously taken the position that his order trumps a mayor’s or a county judge’s order,” Adler said at joint session. “So as not to politicize this ... we’re not going to enforce the mayor’s order, and let the 3rd Court of Appeals wrestle with that legal question.”

Masks also remain required on any city or county property, according to rules that will expire July 8.
By Olivia Aldridge
Olivia is the reporter for Community Impact's Central Austin edition. A graduate of Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, Olivia was a reporter and producer at South Carolina Public Radio before joining Community Impact in Austin.


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