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Attorney general threatens legal action if Austin does not rescind COVID restrictions

(Bob Daemmrich)

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is threatening legal action against the City of Austin and Travis County if leadership does not comply with Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to lift the statewide mask mandate, which went into effect today.


Not a full day after Mayor Steve Adler announced that the city would continue to enforce Austin Public Health's COVID-19 safety guidelines, Paxton tweeted at the mayor and Travis County Judge Andy Brown that they have until 6 p.m. today to rescind the restrictions, "otherwise, on behalf of the State of Texas," he will sue.

Paxton told officials to "come into full compliance with GA-34," which prohibits any Texas jurisdiction from requiring citizens "to wear or to mandate the wearing of a face covering," or enforce any "COVID-19 operating limits for any business or other establishment."

Paxton said he is "looking at every avenue available to stop" Adler and Brown, adding that the State of Texas has already taken Austin to court after the city tried to impose a four-day ban on dine-in food and drink services during New Year's Eve weekend.

"If you continue to flout the law in this manner, we'll take you to court again and you will lose again," Paxton said in a letter.

Mayor Adler responded to the letter at 4:33 p.m. Wednesday saying that himself and Judge Brown would do use "every tool available" to reduce the spread of the virus. "We will fight Governor Abbott and Attorney General Paxton's assault against doctors and data for as long as we possibly can," Adler wrote in a statement.

Austin-Travis County's mask mandate requires businesses to require customers to wear masks inside the establishment; knowingly violating the ordinance could result in a fine of up to $2,000. The decision was made in consultation with Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott, who has been advising the city on safe COVID-19 practices.

"We need the efforts to continue. We need people to continue to mask and distance and do those things that have gotten us out of surge here in Travis County," Escott said in a press conference. "Our hope is that people, our community, our elected officials, will continue to echo the message that these protective measures, these nonpharmaceutical interventions work and they're important for us to continue with that transition."

When Abbott made the announcement that the mask mandate would end, he added that local governments would be able to reinforce restrictions if COVID-19 hospitalizations rise above 15% for a week straight. Hospital admissions for the virus have been below 7% for the past week.

Over the summer, Austin City Council authorized Escott to create rules that protect residents from the virus, meaning the city enforces rules made by Escott, not Adler or Brown. The City of Round Rock will also continue to enforce masks.

Even outside of Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio are still requiring masks to be worn in municipal buildings. Escott said no one can be arrested for not wearing a mask, though they can face criminal charges for refusal to comply with business rules.

Complaints can be made by calling 311.

The story was updated to include a later released statement from Mayor Steve Adler.

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