Harris County officials laud state court ruling upholding local authority to impose mask mandates
Amid the rampant spread of the highly-transmittable COVID-19 omicron variant, Harris County officials held a press conference Jan. 6 to announce the latest in a string of legal victories surrounding the ability of local governments to impose mask mandates. (Courtesy Brian Jackson/Adobe Stock)
As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee was first authorized in early August to take legal action challenging Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order GA-38 that prohibits local government entities from mandating face masks.
Since then, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said every appeals court at which the case has been presented has ruled in Harris County's favor, including most recently, the Third Court of Appeals.
"Today is an important victory for public health, but just as important, this is an important victory for local government," Menefee said during the press conference. "What we've seen the courts continue to say is that the governor's power is not unlimited, the attorney general's power is not unlimited. Since the start of this pandemic, the governor has issued executive orders that seek to tie the hands of local officials and this is just the latest of many, many courts who have said that the governor does not have the legal authority to do this."
However, Menefee said the case would likely be appealed once more to the Texas Supreme Court before a final verdict will be issued.
"As the judge mentioned, today's victory is just one step in this fight, but I can all but guarantee that this case will be appealed and I look forward to—along with the judge—standing alongside school districts across the state, Dallas County, Bexar County and the city of San Antonio, and litigating this case to a final victory in the Texas Supreme Court," Menefee said.
In the interim, Hidalgo said business owners, school district superintendents and day care center leadership have the right to impose mask mandates within their establishments and campuses.
"If you want to be responsible and require masks/continue requiring masks, unless the Texas Supreme Court rules against this—and they won't make a ruling for awhile—you're within your rights to continue with those requirements," Hidalgo said.
The ruling comes the same week Harris County reached a new height in COVID-19 cases, averaging 5,645 new cases a day, according to the Texas Medical Center. While Harris County's COVID-19 threat level remained at Level 2 or "significant" as of the Jan. 6 press conference, Hidalgo said the county could likely be raising its threat level to Level 1 or "severe" in a matter of days.
"We're on the cusp of raising our threat level once again to red because of the incredibly dangerous trends we're seeing in our cases and now very concerning trends in our hospitalizations," Hidalgo said. "So regardless of the legal wrangling over this, you should be requiring a mask in your places of business [and] wherever kids are in school so that we can keep them from transmitting this virus. It is just the right thing to do and this court decision reminds us that while the legal fight is not over, courts continue to find in our favor."