Texas’ attorney general on Wednesday threatened to sue officials in Austin and Travis County if they did not lift local mask mandates. The announcement comes after Governor Greg Abbott signed an executive order last week to lift the statewide mask mandate, despite warnings from health officials about reopening prematurely amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The governor’s executive order, which took effect Wednesday, also lifted capacity restrictions on the state’s businesses. It allowed local officials to impose “mitigation strategies” if hospitalizations surge, but banned them from punishing residents who defy mask guidance and from limiting business capacity to less than 50%. Private businesses are still able to require masks on their premises, but are no longer required to do so per the governor.
Despite Abbot’s executive order, Attorney General Ken Paxton said in letter Wednesday that officials in the city of Austin — and the county that contains it — stated that “local orders requiring individuals to wear face masks while outside their homes will continue unabated.” He addressed the letter to Travis County Judge Andy Brown and Austin Mayor Steve Adler, both of whom have said local mask mandates will remain in effect.
— Mayor Adler | 😷wear a mask. (@MayorAdler) March 9, 2021
The decision to require masks or otherwise impose COVID-19-related operating limits is expressly reserved to private businesses on their own premises,” Paxton said. “It does not rest with jurisdictions like the City of Austin or Travis County or their local health authorities. Nor do they have the authority to threaten fines for non-compliance.”
Paxton said the officials had until 6 p.m. Wednesday to “rescind any local mask mandates or business-operating restrictions, retract any related public statements, and come into full compliance with [the executive order].”
“Otherwise, On behalf Of the State of Texas, I will sue you,” he said.
.@MayorAdler & @AndyBrownATX, you and local health authorities have until 6:00pm today to rescind any mask mandates or business-operating restrictions and come into full compliance with GA-34 ➡️ https://t.co/Bz5DQsw8IV
Otherwise, on behalf of the State of Texas, I will sue you. pic.twitter.com/IP9UpZPplh
— Texas Attorney General (@TXAG) March 10, 2021
In response to Paxton’s letter, Mayor Adler said he and Brown would “fight Governor Abbott and Attorney General Paxton’s assault against doctors and data for as long as we possibly can.”
“Wearing masks is perhaps the most important thing we can do to slow the spread of COVID-19, to further open schools to more students for in-person learning, and to increasingly open businesses while minimizing the risk of any need to pull back,” Adler said.
Abbott’s executive order drew immediate criticism after it was announced. Health officials for weeks have been urging local leaders not to reopen too quickly, given daily case counts and the number of new COVID-19 variants.
“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained. These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the day before Abbott announced his order.
“Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” Walensky added.
Soon after Abbott announced his order, President Biden said it was “Neanderthal thinking” to believe that “in the meantime, everything is fine, take off your masks.”
“I hope everybody’s realized by now, these masks make a difference,” Mr. Biden said. “We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way with which we’re able to get vaccines in people’s arms. We’ve been able to move that all the way up to the end of May to have enough for every American, to get every adult American to get a shot. The last thing, the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything is fine, take off your masks, forget it. It still matters.”
When announcing his executive order, Abbott noted a sharp drop in daily case counts following a surge during the holidays, and said case counts were at their lowest point since November. But even at that time, COVID-19 cases were still at an alarming level, and Abbott was resisting calls to implement stricter preventative measures.
As of Wednesday, Texas reported more than 2.3 million cases of the virus and more than 44,000 deaths, according to state health department data.