Judge delivers blow to Texas Gov. Abbott’s ban on mandates, allows San Antonio to require masks in schools

Temporary restraining order allows San Antonio, Bexar County to impose mask mandates

from left: San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. (KSAT)

San Antonio leaders scored a victory in court against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday in the ongoing fight over mask mandates.

A Bexar County Civil District Court Judge granted the city and Bexar County’s request for a temporary restraining order against Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates in schools.

Effectively, the ruling allows Bexar County and San Antonio officials to issue a mask mandate in public schools and other guidance like quarantine protocol — for now. Officials say they plan to have an order issued by the end of Tuesday. No details have been released yet on the guidance but officials will hold a live press conference at 6:10 p.m.

The order was granted after an hour-long hearing by 57th Civil District Court with Judge Toni Arteaga.

Arteaga said an affidavit from Metro Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Junda Woo weighed heavily in her decision, as did the vulnerability of children who are returning to school amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

“I don’t do this lightly,” Arteaga said.

The temporary restraining order will remain in effect until another court hearing slated for Monday.

With the ruling, the city and county will “immediately issue an order requiring masks in public schools and requiring quarantine if an unvaccinated student is determined to be in close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual,” according to a news release. According to documents presented in court, they will also require face masks for employees of Bexar County and San Antonio and visitors to city and county facilities.

The ruling is the first court loss for Abbott’s ban on coronavirus mandates, which have been challenged across the state in recent days.

“We can get back to managing what is a very dangerous surge of this delta variant in schools and otherwise,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said shortly after the ruling.

“This is a big day for the children of Bexar County and the citizens of our community,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Woff said.

Abbott’s press secretary Renae Eze issued this response:

“Governor Abbott’s resolve to protect the rights and freedoms of all Texans has not wavered. There have been dozens of legal challenges to the Governor’s executive orders—all of which have been upheld in the end. We expect a similar outcome when the San Antonio trial court’s decision is reviewed by the appellate courts.”

On July 29, Abbott issued an executive order that further removed tools from local governments to enact policies that public health experts say would help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including mask requirements, capacity limits and vaccine mandates. Abbott said the executive order “emphasizes that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates.”

Abbott’s executive order relied on the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which he said gives him the authority to bar governments from imposing any coronavirus-related mandates.

Attorney Bill Christian, who represents the City of San Antonio, argued that Abbott’s interpretation is an overreach.

“We do not believe that this statute is broad enough to encompass the decisions of cities and counties in their local jurisdictions drawing on their authority under the local public health acts,” Christian said.

As the city and county’s chief medical officer, the attorneys for San Antonio and Bexar County argue that Woo has the authority to impose a mask mandate under the Texas Health and Safety Code.

Kimberly Gdula, an Assistant Texas Attorney General, said that a temporary restraining order would effectively undo state law.

“Not only are (they) asking this court to overthrow an executive order that carries the force and effect of state law, they are asking this court to throw out parts of the Texas Disaster Act that were passed by the Legislature,” Gdula said.

Gdula also said that a recent ruling from the Eighth Court of Appeals reaffirmed the governor’s power under the Texas Disaster Act.

The lawsuit comes amid a surge of COVID-19 infections that have pushed hospitals to the limit across the state and as schools return to campus for the fall semester.

In San Antonio, the 7-day average of new coronavirus cases is more than 1,200. Hospitalizations have also soared to 1,197. By comparison, an average of 140 patients were hospitalized with the virus in early July.

Several school districts have said they will openly defy Abbott’s ban on mask mandates and more court challenges are expected.

RELATED: Here are the COVID plans for San Antonio-area school districts

Bexar County’s lawsuit comes a day after Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins filed a similar lawsuit challenging Abbott’s order.

Read the lawsuit:

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