By Allyson Waller, The Texas Tribune
The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday temporarily blocked mask mandates in Dallas and Bexar counties, marking a pivotal moment in the showdown between state and local government as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations surge in Denton County and the state.
The ruling comes after several school districts and a handful of counties and cities across the state, including the city of Denton, defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that restricted local entities from instituting mask mandates.
In a petition for a writ of mandamus to the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the governor power to act as the “‘commander in chief’ of the state’s response to a disaster. Attorneys representing cities and counties that have sued Abbott over his executive order have argued that his orders should not supersede local orders.
“Let this ruling serve as a reminder to all ISDs and local officials that the Governor’s order stands,” Paxton said in a tweet on Sunday after the ruling.
Abbott’s response to the decision was less pointed, specifying that his executive order does not prohibit mask-wearing.
“Anyone who wants to wear a masks can do so,” Abbott said in a tweet.
Fueled by the highly-contagious delta variant, hospitalizations have increased across the state at a pace quicker than any other point during the pandemic. Less than half of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.
Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University, said the ruling means “the writing is on the wall” for other school districts and counties that have also approved mask requirements, and it’s likely Abbott and Paxton will repeat the same legal maneuvers they made with Dallas and Bexar counties.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden hinted last week at the possibility of the federal government intervening in states that have banned mask mandates.
Recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance recommending universal masking for students and school staff. With children 12 and younger not yet cleared to receive the vaccine, some teachers and parents in Texas have expressed worry that not instituting mask requirements could contribute to spread of the virus as the school year gets under way.
That led some of the largest school districts in the state — Austin ISD, Dallas ISD and Houston ISD — to require masks, despite Abbott’s order.
A judge in Tarrant County, meanwhile, granted a temporary order preventing Fort Worth ISD from requiring masks after four parents pursued a restraining order against the district, according to the Fort-Worth Star Telegram.
This story has been edited for length. This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/08/15/texas-coronavirus-supreme-court-school-mask-mandate/.