Masks again mandatory in Dallas County schools, businesses but Gov. Abbott, Paxton mount legal fight – dallasnews.com

Updated at 6:34 p.m.: Updated throughout with more information, including the state attorney general filing a legal challenge.

Masks will once again be mandatory in Dallas County schools, businesses and county buildings as COVID-19 delta variant cases continue to climb, Judge Clay Jenkins announced Wednesday.

But the new local rules face staunch opposition from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton as they prepare to mount a legal fight against any entity that adopts mask mandates.

Shortly after Jenkins announced his new rules, Paxton on Wednesday filed a petition for an appeal, seeking to block Jenkins. Paxton also warned in a news release that any school, public university or government that defied the Republican governor’s order would “be taken to court.”

The new executive order from the county’s top elected official comes after a Dallas district judge issued a temporary restraining order late Tuesday that restricts enforcement of Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. School districts and local governments across the state are also lining up to defy the governor’s order.

In announcing new rules for Dallas County, Jenkins, a Democrat, said he worked with school superintendents; restaurant, bar and retail owners; and more when crafting the order and stressed that masks and vaccinations are the two best ways to stop the spread of the virus.

“Your personal freedom is important to me and to you, but your personal freedom doesn’t come to harming your neighbors,” Jenkins said. “I’m hopeful that we will turn the tide somewhat with these orders.”

Jenkins has said masking is necessary to help slow the spread of the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus as cases skyrocket and hospitals quickly run out of beds. The county announced more than 3,000 new cases over three days on Tuesday. UT Southwestern Medical Center predicts the county will reach more than 2,000 daily cases and 1,500-plus hospitalized patients by late August.

Jenkins first issued mask orders in April 2020, about a month after coronavirus cases first started popping up in Dallas County and elsewhere. At that time, orders also included lockdown and occupancy limits. Jenkins said that CDC guidance has changed and does not recommend such drastic action, but that his order could change.

“You may see more orders, you may see changes,” Jenkins said. “It’s a small price to pay to protect our children and public health.”

Dallas County’s new rules

Dallas County’s new masking mandate goes into effect at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday and requires the following:

  • All teachers, staff, students and visitors to child care centers and pre-K through 12th grade schools in Dallas County must wear masks. Dallas ISD already said it would require face coverings, and other districts have followed suit. Schools may also develop further requirements, including social distancing in classrooms.
  • All “commercial entities in Dallas County providing goods or services directly to the public” must develop a health and safety policy that includes wearing a mask indoors. This includes retail stores, bars and restaurants, but also many offices and other businesses, Jenkins said. Signs stating the policy must be visible and posted near the door of a business. A fine of up to $1,000 may be issued for businesses that violate the order.
  • Masks are required in all Dallas County buildings. It does not apply to city-owned facilities like recreation centers or libraries. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said Wednesday he was aware of the order and was working with other officials to review the city’s legal options.
  • Masks are not required in private homes but are strongly encouraged for anyone 2 years old or older in general public spaces. No penalty will be enforced.

School districts respond

Public health experts say the new variant is especially concerning for children under 12 years old who cannot get the vaccine. As classes start back up for the school year, only two pediatric ICU beds were available Tuesday in all of North Texas.

Dallas ISD and Fort Worth ISD have defied the governor’s order, saying they will require masks. A Bexar County judge issued its own restraining order, allowing the county and city of San Antonio to require masks in government-owned buildings and schools.

Following Jenkins’ announcement, the Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Garland, Irving, Highland Park, Richardson, Mesquite, Grand Prairie, Cedar Hill, DeSoto, Duncanville and Lancaster school districts confirmed that they would enforce a mask mandate.

“One community’s health and well-being are interdependent with the neighboring communities,” the superintendents of Cedar Hill, DeSoto, Duncanville and Lancaster wrote in a statement. “We believe this emergency order aligns with our efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Representatives from Sunnyvale ISD indicated the district was still working through the decision.

Garland ISD — which started school on Aug. 2, weeks earlier than most districts — will require masks at all campuses, buses and facilities starting Thursday, regardless of vaccination status.

In a message to families, Richardson officials acknowledged how quickly the mask rules were evolving.

“This situation continues to change, and the potential for additional legal action may change the situation again in the coming days or weeks,” they wrote. “For now, masks will be required.”

Jenkins said he expected schools to follow the order, although he admitted there would be no penalty if they do not. He also said he understands if some children aren’t wearing their masks all the time during the school day.

“I believe that our schools will act in accordance with the law,” Jenkins said. “If we find that is not true, I may have to revisit this.”

Coppell ISD sent a notice to families late Wednesday afternoon, informing them the district would follow Jenkins’ mandate. But in doing so, it acknowledged the conflict between the local order and Abbott’s executive order.

“The district anticipates that there will be further legal action regarding these conflicting orders from Dallas County Judge Jenkins and Governor Abbott,” the district wrote.

Southern Methodist University also announced it would require masks indoors starting Thursday.

Legal challenge continues

Jenkins’ order is the result of a win in the courts late Tuesday stemming from a suit between Jenkins and Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch, who was escorted from a Commissioners Court meeting last week for refusing to wear a mask after it was mandated. Koch sued Jenkins for violating Abbott’s order, who in turn sued the governor.

A Dallas County judge heard arguments from Jenkins’ and Abbott’s attorneys Tuesday before deciding that the governor’s executive order precluding local mask mandates was “not [a] necessary action to combat the pandemic.”

“The citizens of Dallas County have and will continue to be damaged and injured by Governor Abbott’s conduct,” the order reads. “Judge Jenkins cannot be precluded from implementing the mitigation strategies he believes are sound, reliable, and backed by scientific evidence.”

Koch said Wednesday that Jenkins did not alert him about the mask order and that he expected it to be overturned by a higher court.

“This is primarily some political theater to give [Jenkins] a chance to be the mask hero,” Koch said Wednesday. “This is all a lot of fanfare. He still has to reckon with the fact that he broke the law.”

A hearing on whether the temporary order should become a permanent injunction is scheduled for Aug. 24. Jenkins’ lawyers said Wednesday they expected there wouldn’t be a challenge to the order until then.

Paxton and Abbott filed a petition in the state’s Fifth Court of Appeals on Wednesday to block Jenkins’ order. He and Abbott have dug in on the ban on mandates, saying it should be up to individual Texans to choose to wear a mask — although Abbott has repeatedly encouraged people to do so.

“This isn’t the first time we have dealt with activist characters. It’s deja vu all over again,” Paxton said in a statement. “Attention-grabbing judges and mayors have defied executive orders before, when the pandemic first started, and the courts ruled on our side — the law.”

Paxton’s office also issued a non-binding legal opinion Wednesday suggesting that federal masking requirements — including from the TSA in places of public transportation — could also be in violation of the state order.

Reporters Emily Donaldson, Talia Richman, Corbett Smith and Everton Bailey contributed to this report.

Original News Source Link

Leave a Comment