Texas Supreme Court blocks lower-court rulings that allowed mask mandates

Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman

Austin, Texas – The Texas Supreme Court stepped in Sunday evening to block lower-court orders that had allowed Dallas and San Antonio to impose mask mandates contrary to an executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The temporary restraining orders, issued by separate District Court judges and upheld Friday by intermediate appellate courts, had halted enforcement of Abbott’s July 29 edict that prohibited cities, counties, school districts and public health officials from requiring face masks to be worn indoors.

A growing number of local officials have defied Abbott’s order as the highly contagious delta variant has produced a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections, overrunning intensive care units in adult and children’s hospitals across Texas. Many local mask requirements focused on schools because children under 12 lack access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Some of those local mask mandates were based on a statewide temporary restraining order, issued by state District Judge Tonya Parker in Dallas County, that prohibited Abbott from enforcing his ban on required masks.

The Supreme Court action Sunday, however, blocked Parker’s restraining order – and it was unclear how school districts will react, particularly those where school doors will open on short notice early Monday morning.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are challenging local mask mandates as illegal under the governor’s emergency powers during a declared disaster. Those challenges remain before the Supreme Court and are expected to be decided later.

“Let this ruling serve as a reminder to all (school districts) and local officials that the governor’s order stands,” Paxton said on Twitter. “Local mask mandates are illegal.”

Abbott, who has said Texans – not government – must be responsible for their own health, also took to Twitter to announce the ruling, adding: “The ban doesn’t prohibit using masks. Anyone who wants to wear a mask can do so, including in schools.”

Sunday’s Supreme Court action did not stop the next step in the legal process – trial court hearings Monday in San Antonio and Aug. 24 in Dallas on whether to issue temporary injunctions that would allow mask mandates. The now-blocked restraining orders were intended to allow masking requirements to continue until the injunction matters are settled.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who last week required that masks be worn inside schools and businesses, said the legal fight is far from over.

“We won’t stop working with parents, doctors, schools, business and others to protect you and intend to win that hearing” on Aug. 24, he said in a tweet.

A number of other mask mandates rely on trial court orders not yet before the Supreme Court, including restraining orders issued Friday in Travis County for Harris County and a half-dozen South Texas school districts.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said Sunday’s Supreme Court action did not affect his county, and he plans to move forward toward an expected injunction hearing like Dallas and San Antonio.

A number of organizations, advocacy groups and school districts filed briefs over the weekend urging the Supreme Court to uphold mask mandates.

Disability Rights Texas said school officials should be allowed to follow federal health guidelines by requiring masks, saying it would help protect students with disabilities who face a higher risk of hospitalization, severe illness or death should they contract COVID-19.

“The executive order at issue here is not mere inattention to a fire; it is an attempt to prevent any fire brigade from fighting the fire as it deems best while the citizens risk being consumed by the flames,” Disability Rights Texas told the court.

The Texas Association of School Boards said public school districts are responsible for the health and safety of more than 5 million students who are required to attend school.

“A blanket prohibition against requiring masks in public school districts is an intrusion on local authority and an impediment to school districts’ ability to take local responsibility for the safety of a largely unvaccinated school population,” the organization told the court.

“School districts across the state are simply asking for the flexibility to set guidelines for student and staff health measures when their communities are demanding it and when school leaders determine it would be best for their students and educators,” the association added.

The Dallas County Medical Society, representing 8,400 doctors and students, said public masking is effective at reducing the spread of the coronavirus, particularly when all parties are masked.

“Our emergency rooms are rapidly becoming overloaded because of the increased number of patients requiring emergency care. Patients who require hospitalization are waiting hours, even days, to be admitted to a hospital room,” the society told the court.

The workload also is taking a toll on the physical and mental health of doctors and medical professionals, the society said, adding: “The current rate of effort being expended is unsustainable.”