SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County’s mask mandate for public schools is allowed to remain in effect after the latest in a back-and-forth court battle between the county and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Just one day after the Texas Supreme Court lifted a temporary restraining order that allowed for Bexar County’s mask mandate last week, 57th Civil District Court Judge Toni Arteaga ruled in favor of the county again on Monday.
“I’m aware of the importance of this decision and, as before, I don’t take it lightly,” Arteaga said. “My thoughts continue to be with those children in our schools who don’t have access to the vaccine but must attend school coupled with the dire situation right here in Bexar County hospitals.”
The ruling grants a temporary injunction that prevents the enforcement of Abbott’s executive order that barred local governments from issuing coronavirus-related mandates. The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling allowed for injunction hearings to continue in Bexar and Dallas counties.
Like the order granted last week, the latest ruling is likely to be appealed by the governor and Attorney General Ken Paxton. The mask mandate on public schools and city employees will remain in effect until the trial is scheduled, unless higher courts reverse the decision before then.
In their closing arguments, lawyers representing Bexar County relied on testimony from local officials, who painted a grim picture of what frontline responders are facing during the latest coronavirus surge fueled by the delta variant.
“The city and county both face a situation where, unless they do everything they can to curb the increase in cases, the health care system is threatened to be overwhelmed ... and the city is struggling to provide essential services including ambulance, fire and other services that members of our community rely on every day,” said attorney Bill Christian, who represented the City of San Antonio.
The state’s attorney, Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Gdula, argued that local officials would be violating state law by issuing orders that conflict with Abbott’s executive orders. The governor is granted broad power through the Texas Disaster Act, she said.
“This court is not the forum for a policy debate regarding masks,” Gdula said. “Plaintiffs have made it clear today that they have opinions about masking policy. But this court can only address legal questions.”
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he was pleased with the ruling on Monday.
“Regardless of the eventual outcome in court, every day that our unvaccinated children are protected at school by masks is a win for the entire community,” Nirenberg said.
Local officials said they expect the state to appeal the ruling and are ready to defend it in court.
Health care staffing crisis
In the morning, Metro Health Medical Director Dr. Junda Woo was the first witness called to testify by city and county attorneys. Woo described a staffing crisis in her testimony, which detailed the severity of the current situation.
“I worry we’re going to break our health care system,” Woo said. “I think the level of burnout and anger that I see among health care providers who I’ve known for years is at levels I’ve never seen before. We can’t keep asking people to do this over and over again.”
While COVID-19 hospitalizations are lower in Bexar County than the record highs seen at the beginning of the pandemic, hospital staffing levels are down by about 1,600 health care workers, Woo said.
“We don’t have enough staff in our hospitals right now, so it doesn’t do any good to just have beds there are available,” Woo said. “There are available beds, there are available ventilators but there’s not a human being there to care for a person, so those beds and ventilations are not being used.”
As a result, 93% of hospital beds were occupied as of Friday, according to the city and county’s COVID-19 dashboard, putting extreme stress on hospitals.
Pediatric hospitals are also seeing a surge due to COVID-19 and Respiratory Syncytial Virus, a virus that is usually seen more during the winter. As children return to in-person instruction, some schools have already reported more COVID-19 cases than the previous school year.
The transmission of both of those viruses would be curbed by a mask mandate for schools, Woo testified.
San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh testified about the strain placed on city staff and services due to the surge of COVID-19.
Walsh said the city was without an ambulance for nearly 30 minutes on Thursday due to an extremely high number of COVID-19 calls and hospitalizations.
Without curbing infection levels, Walsh worries that more city services could be affected or interrupted. That could include police and fire services, trash pickup, airport operations and public library functions.
“Everything we do is geared toward an element of community service and all those could be impacted,” Walsh said.
The judge also heard from Bexar County Manager David Smith and Edna Coleman, who testified in favor of the mandate. Coleman’s husband, Kyle Coleman served as Bexar County’s emergency management coordinator before he died of COVID-19.
The state’s sole witness in the hearing was Michelle Means, a mother who lives in Bexar County. Means said that she only sent her children back to in-person instruction because she thought they would not be required to wear masks. She likened the news of the mask mandate to getting “punched in the stomach.”
“I agree with the governor that I’m in the best position to make decisions for my family,” Means said.