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As COVID Cases Surge Again In Texas, State & Local Leaders Locked In Battle Over Masks

Photo from above of a woman wearing a mask standing in the center of the state seal at the Texas State Capitol.
Eric Gay
A visitor wears a protective mask during a visit to the Texas Capitol, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Austin, Texas. Defiance of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates continues as more Texas school districts and communities announce plans to require students to wear face coverings and another county scored a legal victory in its efforts to issue such mandates amid a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations throughout the state.

Fighting among Texas officials over mask mandates has created muddled messaging, as the highly contagious delta variant is sending people to the hospital in numbers that rival the worst months of the pandemic.

On Friday, local Democratic officials from across Texas lambasted Gov. Greg Abbott and other state Republicans, saying they’re playing politics and risking lives.

At a virtual news conference, officials from four of the state’s largest counties, four cities, and two school districts joined labor leaders in arguing that the governor’s order blocking local officials from requiring masks has endangered Texans.

The number of children in Texas hospitalized with COVID-19 is at one of the highest levels seen since the pandemic began, a worrying trend as students head back to school.

In the 19-county North Texas region around Dallas and Fort Worth, there wereno staffed pediatric ICU beds available on Thursday evening to treat children with the most serious illness and injury.

“Your child will [have to] wait for another child to die, your child will just not get on a ventilator, [or] your child will be care-flighted to Temple or Oklahoma City, or wherever we can find them a bed,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said.

A spokesperson for Cook Children’s in Fort Worth toldCBS DFW on Thursday afternoon that the hospital was not yet forced to send ICU patients to other hospitals, but that it would “if the situation arises where we cannot accommodate a patient at our hospital.”

Infectious disease experts say a combination of masks, social distancing and vaccinations is the most effective strategy to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Children under 12 years old are particularly vulnerable right now, because they are not eligible to receive coronavirus vaccinations.

Jenkins also blamed the governor for a shortage of doctors and nurses to staff hospitals, saying Abbott failed to continue funding for additional temporary hospital staffers. Earlier this week, the governorannounced new funding to hire out-of-state health professionals.

The Fight Over Mask Mandates

Texas Gov Greg Abbott removals his mask before speaking at a news conferenced about migrant children detentions Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Dallas.
LM Otero
File photo of Gov Greg Abbott removals his mask before speaking at a news conference in March. Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton are asking the state's Fifth Court of Appeals to block Dallas County's order requiring face coverings.

Abbottsigned the order barring local governments from requiring people to wear masks in public settings in late July.

Local leaders in some of Texas’ largest counties and school districts haveissued orders requiring masks, openly violating the governor’s order.

That’s set off aseries of lawsuits, with Democratic local officials notching early court victories in defense of mask mandates, and state Republicans appealing to higher courts to defend the governor’s ability to limit what actions local governments can take to fight a public health emergency.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said Abbott’s directive is an abuse of the Texas Disaster Act.

Under the act, the governor can bypass or suspend local laws to respond to a crisis. But

Menefee said the governor had essentially turned the logic behind the Disaster Act on its head.

“He’s using that law now to do nothing more than to say, ‘my view of people’s constitutional rights is that they should not have to wear masks, and therefore, I’m going to use this law to suspend any other law you might use to keep people safe.’” Menefee said. “It’s wrong, it’s likely unconstitutional, and I will say, it’s a very scary time.”

Abbott has added an item to the special session agenda that would codify into state law his order banning local governments from enacting such mandates. The Senate passed a version of the legislation on Thursday. The local leaders urged lawmakers against passing such legislation.

Meanwhile, more cities, school boards and county governments are openly defying the governor’s ban on mask mandates.

On Thursday, the Denton City Council held an emergency meeting topass a mask requirement in the city. Council member Deb Armintor characterized the move as both essential for public safety, and also an act of solidarity with other local leaders.

“If they’re going to come after you, they’ll come after us too, and we are stronger together in numbers,” she said.

The fight over whether a government has the authority to require people to wear masks will likely land in the state’s supreme court. All eight sitting justices are Republicans.

In the meantime, Democratic leaders say they’ll continue to require masking as long as they’re able to.

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Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.