Austin and Travis County officials can keep enforcing local mask mandate for now, judge says

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A sign outside of Little Brother Coffee & Kolaches asks customers to wear a mask inside the South Austin business on March 3, 2021. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Austin and Travis County can keep requiring masks for at least a bit longer after a district judge denied a request for a temporary block of the local mandate sought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Paxton sued the local officials for refusing to end the mandate after Gov. Greg Abbott lifted state restrictions earlier this month. Paxton will likely appeal the decision.

District Judge Lora Livingston has yet to issue a final ruling on the merits of the case, meaning Austin and Travis officials may later be told to comply with state officials.

But in the meantime, County Judge Andy Brown said Friday’s ruling at least prolongs the amount of time masks are required in their communities — which gives them more time to vaccinate their residents.

“I've been doing everything that I can to protect the health and safety of people in Travis County,” Brown said in an interview. “And Judge Livingston's ruling today allows us to keep doing that.”

Abbott ended nearly all of the state’s COVID-19 safety restrictions on March 10, including the statewide mask mandate, citing decreases in COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases. Many public health experts said the move was too soon, before the majority of the state was vaccinated or even was eligible for a shot.

In his order, Abbott said that “no jurisdiction” can require a person to wear a mask in public if the area doesn’t meet a certain threshold for coronavirus hospitalizations in that hospital region. Many local governments dropped their restrictions as a result. However, this was not the case in Travis County where officials said they would continue to require public mask use.

Paxton sued Austin and Travis County the day after restrictions were lifted. He maintained that Abbott’s order supersedes all local jurisdictions.

State lawyers pushed for the judge to grant a temporary injunction the next day, but Livingston said it wouldn’t have been fair to give the defendants only a day to prepare. Therefore, masks remained required in Travis County in the meantime.