The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday struck down temporary restraining orders that empowered Bexar and Dallas counties to institute mask mandates despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning them.
The elected Republican body offered Abbott his first court victory in the fight over local emergency power but local leaders remain defiant and many mask mandates across the state remain in effect.
“I’m obviously very disappointed in it. It’s not surprising because they’re all Republicans and they’ve got to run in the Republican primary,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to keep up the battle to protect the school children of Texas.”
San Antonio, Bexar County, and Dallas county sued Abbott last week over his executive order banning mask mandates. Both suits won in lower courts and on appeal.
A groundswell of defiance from local governments and school districts across the state took place last week as coronavirus cases surged and hospitalizations increased. The number of ICU beds available in the state of 29 million dropped to 322 Sunday afternoon.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton brought the case to the state Supreme Court.
The win for Abbott was expected by legal experts, who said the emergency statute he used to suspend laws was clear. State constitutional scholar Charles “Rocky” Rhodes said the court would not be deciding whether the mask mandate ban is good policy, but on whether the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the governor the authority to respond to a crisis across multiple counties.
“It seems to me that the argument of the cities and counties here would undercut the overarching purpose of the statute as a whole,” Rhodes said.
According to an advisory announcing the temporary stay Sunday evening, the ruling by the state Supreme Court does not impact upcoming hearings for both counties that could return emergency powers. San Antonio and Bexar County’s hearing is scheduled for Monday.
“The City of San Antonio and Bexar County’s response to the Texas Supreme Court continues to emphasize that the Governor cannot use his emergency powers to suspend laws that provide local entities the needed flexibility to act in an emergency,” said San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia. “His suspension authority is meant to facilitate action, not prohibit it.”
Meanwhile, city and county officials said Bexar County Health Authority Dr. Junda Woo’s health directive mandating the use of masks in public schools from pre-kindergarten through grade 12th remains in effect.
The state Supreme Court’s order comes less than 12 hours before the first day of the school year for many Texas school districts, giving districts little time to decide how to respond and communicate that response to parents.
Monday is the first day of school for several San Antonio school districts, including North East, Judson and Harlandale. North East and Harlandale notified parents masks would once again be optional. However, both districts strongly encouraged the use of masks. Edgewood ISD said they’re keeping the mask mandate in place for Monday and will decide what to do after that based on the results of the hearing. San Antonio ISD officials are asking staff and students at their schools to follow the mask mandate.
Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said he’s keeping the school district’s mask mandate in place, pointing out that the ruling applied to counties only and not schools districts like his.
“We’re going to continue with our mask mandate to keep students safe, to keep parents safe, to keep families safe and most importantly our teachers, who are on the front lines,” Hinojosa said.
If the court rules otherwise, Hinojosa said he’ll comply. But until then, the superintendent said masks will be required in Dallas ISD schools. He said if students refuse to wear a mask, they’ll be taught in a separate class room.
This story will be updated.
KERA’s Bill Zeeble contributed to this report.