No Mask, No Vax, No Entry? The Battle Between Local and State Leaders Continues.

Schools, private businesses push back on Abbott's orders banning mask mandates and requests for vaccination proof

Travis County Judge Andy Brown attends a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in February; last week Brown and Mayor Adler issued local mask mandates in select locations (photo by Jana Birchum)

Austin's local COVID-19 orders and safety measures continue to tighten up as the region and state weather the worst surge so far of the pandemic. Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown issued mandates last week requiring face masks at all public schools, including colleges, in addition to city and county properties such as parks.

These orders, and similar ones throughout Texas, have placed local leaders in direct defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott's attempts to keep them from doing their jobs, which normally under state law include making rules to protect public health. (County judges are specifically designated as the point people to lead disaster response in Texas.) While Abbott's GA-38 executive order bans local governments from mandating face masks, he's being ignored not only by Austin and Travis County, but by Austin ISD and 10 other school districts in the metro area, the front lines of the COVID culture war this week as students return to campuses. (The largest local holdout school district, as we go to press Wednesday, is Lake Travis; Leander had to reverse its former anti-mask stance after three days of school led to nearly 90 reported COVID-19 cases.)

The legal conflict between Abbott's regime and the rebel local forces is playing out in multiple courtrooms across Texas. Over the weekend, the Texas Supreme Court stayed the restraining orders that had allowed Dallas and Bexar counties to enforce their own mask mandates, pending those cases being heard in the lower courts. Bexar County prevailed, for now, in its hearing on Monday, Aug. 16 and can mandate masking in K-12 schools; Dallas County's case is scheduled for hearing later this month. The following day, after a 24-hour war of words between Attorney General Ken Paxton and several defiant plaintiffs, the scandal-prone A.G. asked SCOTX to likewise throw out similar restraining orders granted to Harris County and multiple school districts by Travis County District Judge Jan Soifer; the court had not ruled as of press time.

In addition to local government entities, some Texas businesses have gotten intense scrutiny from the state for attempting to keep their establishments safe. Last week Austin restaurants Fresa's and Launderette were threatened by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission with suspension of their liquor licenses under newly enacted Senate Bill 968, which prohibits their attempts to require proof of vaccination for indoor dining. (See story below; more online.) The agency also made threatening noises against local venue Hotel Vegas for similar reasons this weekend, but officially TABC says its goal is education, not draconian enforcement.

Intensive care beds in Texas hospitals are as full as they have ever been, with 17 of the state’s 22 Trauma Service Areas reporting fewer than 10 ICU beds available this week.

This isn't the first time the state's top leadership has battled local safety measures during peak surges in the pandemic. Over the New Year's holiday weekend, Austin's attempts to restrict dine-in service hours were ultimately halted after the fact in response to another urgent appeal by Paxton to the state Supreme Court. How­ever, Paxton's team lost its challenge to the city and county's retaining their local mask orders – as measures imposed by the county Health Authority that Adler and Brown couldn't undo by themselves – following Abbott's statewide rollback on COVID-19 restrictions in March.

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to rage in Austin and across the state. Within the last few days, Austin's seven-day moving average for COVID-19 hospitalizations has flattened slightly, though health officials stress the current surge is far from over. Patients in the ICU are sicker and staying in the hospitals longer than in prior surges, putting more strain on hospital resources, explained Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes in a joint briefing to the Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday. Inten­sive care beds in Texas hospitals are as full as they have ever been, with 17 of the state's 22 Trauma Service Areas reporting fewer than 10 ICU beds available this week. That includes TSA O, the 11-county region anchored by Travis County, where as of Aug. 17 there are only three ICU beds available for some 2.3 million Central Texans.

A new development that might help decrease this burden, said Walkes, is Austin's regional infusion center for monoclonal antibody therapy, which opened on Aug. 16 at the Travis County Expo Center. A provider referral is required for treatment; Regeneron Pharmaceuticals' REGEN-COV therapy, which is not a substitute for vaccination, is a cocktail of two medications intended for people infected with the virus who aren't hospitalized but who are at high risk for developing severe disease. One of those people? Abbott, who is now being treated with REGEN-COV following his announcement Tuesday that he'd tested positive for COVID-19. Abbott, who's attended several mostly maskless large indoor and outdoor gatherings in recent weeks, said he gets tested every day and is fully vaccinated, which he said "may be one reason why I'm really not feeling any symptoms right now."

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COVID-19, Steve Adler, Andy Brown, Greg Abbott, GA-38 executive order, mask mandates, Austin Independent School District, Texas Supreme Court, Jan Soifer, Ken Paxton, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Senate Bill 968, SB 968, Fresa's, Launderette, Hotel Vegas, TABC liquor license, Desmar Walkes, ICU bed capacity, monoclonal antibody therapy

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