Texas Supreme Court temporarily strikes down Bexar County’s mask mandate

Court has yet to issue a ruling on merits of appeal

Illustration (Graham Media Group)

Bexar County’s mask mandate in public schools was temporarily struck down by the Texas Supreme Court on Thursday, giving a victory to Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Abbott and Paxton filed an emergency motion to the court on Tuesday, seeking a stay on the injunction that allowed Bexar County’s mask mandate to move forward. The court granted the stay, but has not yet ruled on the state’s request to permanently lift the injunction as the case moves its way through the courts.

The injunction was initially granted by 57th Civil District Court Judge Toni Arteaga on Aug. 16 after Bexar County sued the governor, arguing that he overreached on his executive order that barred governmental entities, including schools, from requiring face coverings. Arteaga cited the vulnerability of children in school and a “dire situation” in Bexar County hospitals amid a surge of COVID-19 cases.

The state officials filed an appeal with the Texas Supreme Court after the Fourth Court of Appeals upheld the injunction on Aug. 19.

Bexar County’s lawyers have argued that the governor’s executive orders violate the Texas Health and Safety Code, which allows local health officials to enact mandates for public health reasons.

Lawyers for the state argued the temporary injunction breaches on the governor’s authority granted to him under the Texas Disaster Act. They also said the mask mandate was adding to “statewide confusion arising from the multiple, conflicting orders that courts at all levels of the judiciary have issued in the past several weeks.”

Paxton praised the decision in a statement released Thursday.

“The Texas Supreme Court has sided with the law, and the decision to enforce mask mandates lies with the governor’s legislatively-granted authority,” Attorney General Paxton said. “Mask mandates across our state are illegal, and judges must abide by the law. Further non-compliance will result in more lawsuits.”

Meanwhile, the county’s lawyers are planning their next move.

“While I am personally disappointed in the order handed down today by the Texas Supreme Court, I will continue to do all that I can to fight for the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Bexar County,” said Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales. “We are continuing to work with the City of San Antonio to determine the next steps in light of the order issued today.”

Regardless of the county’s mask mandate, several San Antonio area school districts have enacted mask requirements of their own that could be in effect until challenged by Paxton in court. Gonzales said that he will not prosecute school district officials who keep the mandates intact.

As of Wednesday, Bexar County hospitals were reporting 1,371 COVID-19 patients, with 391 in the ICU and 238 on ventilators. Only 7% of staffed hospital beds are available, stressing hospital staff and resources.

Since the pandemic began, 3,802 Bexar County residents have died of the virus.

Read the timeline below, recapping the back-and-forth court battle between Bexar County and Texas:

  • June 5: An Executive Order issued by Abbott went into effect prohibiting counties, cities, school districts, public health authorities, or government officials from requiring or mandating mask wearing.
  • July 29: Abbott issued another executive order that further removed local governments’ abilities to enact policies like requiring people to wear masks, get vaccinated or set capacity limits.
  • Aug. 10: A Bexar County Civil District Court Judge granted a request from officials with Bexar County and the City of San Antonio and issued a temporary restraining order against Abbott’s executive order. The ruling allowed the Bexar County Health Authority to issue a health directive for public schools to issue a mask mandate in public schools and other guidance like quarantine protocols. As a result, school districts in Bexar County announced they would require masks inside campuses.
  • Aug. 15: The Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton, temporarily banning mask mandates in Bexar and Dallas counties. Some San Antonio-area school districts eliminated mask mandates following that ruling.
  • Aug. 16: 57th Civil District Court Judge Toni Arteaga ruled in favor of Bexar County. 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 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.
  • Aug. 19: The Fourth Court of Appeals upheld the temporary injunction.
  • Aug. 24: Abbott and Paxton filed an emergency motion to the Texas Supreme Court, seeking a stay on the injunction that allowed Bexar County’s mask mandate to move forward.
  • Aug. 26: The Texas Supreme Court grants temporary stay on Bexar County’s mask mandate.