Austin-Travis County mandates masks in public schools, defying Gov. Abbott’s ban

State & Regional

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin and Travis County will require face masks for residents in city and county buildings and public schools — in direct opposition to a ban by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown announced the decision Wednesday evening, with Brown saying: “Mayor Adler and I signed orders requiring masks in public schools and county/city buildings. With our kids back in school next week, our community & public health officials have called on us to take this reasonable measure. This will protect countless lives & keep us safe.”

The orders, which go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, August 12, specifically say:

  • Students, staff and visitors over the age of two are REQUIRED to wear a face covering while on school property or school buses during Stages 3, 4 and 5 as set forth in Austin Public Health’s Risk-Based Chart. This includes all public schools, including public charter schools in the City of Austin. 
  • An individual over the age of two is REQUIRED to wear a face covering while present on or in City and County property unless expressly exempted in Section 2 or by a City or County policy applicable to the premises or facility. 

Abbott posted to Twitter shortly after the Adler/Brown announcement, threatening: “Any school district, public university, or local government official that decides to defy GA-38—which prohibits gov’t entities from mandating masks—will be taken to court.”

Adler and Brown said they are ready for that.

“We’ve already been in court twice with the governor. The district court the last two times has upheld our ability to issue these kinds of orders locally,” Adler told KXAN. “The supreme court hasn’t weighed in yet on the merits. I guess that will eventually happen, but regardless, it’s important for us to send the message to the community that masking, vaccinations are important.”

“If the governor and the attorney general decided to sue us over this, you know we’re prepared to argue our legal case,” Brown told KXAN.

On Tuesday, district judges ruled to allow Dallas and Bexar counties the authority to implement their mask mandates, at least temporarily. Last month, Abbott said he would not be reinstating a statewide mask mandate, instead directing Texans to adhere to “personal responsibility.”

But as many in the area remain unvaccinated, COVID-19 is now spreading with a fury.

The governor announced Wednesday he and Attorney General Ken Paxton would be working to strike down actions by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who issued a mask requirement earlier on Wednesday for all public schools and commercial entities.

Schools respond

“Masks will be required in any public school within Travis County starting tomorrow, and that is especially important for Pflugerville ISD, where classes actually do start tomorrow,” Brown said.

But in an email to parents Wednesday night, Pflugerville ISD’s superintendent said they will not comply with the new local orders.

“We have received legal guidance that the order may be without authority,” wrote Doug Killian, adding they will highly encourage masks, but not require them.

“This decision is not because I don’t believe masks will make a difference,” he said. “We cannot evict students or deny them entry based on their compliance with a district mask mandate, particularly as we do not have a state-funded virtual learning platform available to those who would not comply.”

Killian said the district is working with their legal advisors and watching the court system on the legality of mask requirements.

“To see our county step up and advocate for that on our behalf was really encouraging,” said John Armbrust, founder and CEO of Austin Achieve Public Schools.

Armbrust said a recent survey showed 96% of families would be supportive of a mask mandate, but the school had so far only highly encouraged them in the first four weeks of school.

He said the new orders make him feel more comfortable with the idea of enforcing them.

“We certainly were considering it but, you know, didn’t want to go against the state all by ourselves,” he said.

But there are still a lot of questions.

“I don’t know, if a parent complains and says, ‘hey, I don’t want my kid in a mask,’ we’re still trying to figure out what that means exactly,” Armbrust said.

The orders state compliance for schools is self-regulated, and no penalties are outlined. They also allow school leaders to decide when it is not appropriate to require masks.

Armbrust said they’ll stick with encouraging masks until next week, when the board and legal counsel meet.

“I think it’s just smart for us to really study this ruling and the governor’s orders and just figure out what we need to adhere to, when. It got pretty complicated,” he said.

Read the orders in full:

COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County

As of Wednesday afternoon, there are 2,758 active COVID-19 cases in Austin-Travis County. There are currently 596 people hospitalized, 198 patients in the ICU and 132 people on ventilators. Local experts uniformly agree the unvaccinated are most at risk.

Just last week, Austin Public Health explained roughly 80% of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in the Austin metro area in just two weeks were unvaccinated. That equals 230 non-vaccinated people who were hospitalized between July 19 and August 1. Only 47 total fully-vaccinated people were hospitalized.

“Today’s actions are based on a rapid increase in hospital admissions, cases, and test positivity rates across the community. Additionally, the rapidly accelerating need to provide care for unvaccinated people who are seriously ill due to COVID-19 has filled Intensive Care Units (ICUs),” the city said in a press release.

The Austin-Travis County area is in Stage 5 of its COVID-19 risk-based guidelines, which directs residents to implement and avoid certain behaviors based on their vaccination status. Generally, those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated are advised to avoid most non-essential public and social outings. Fully-vaccinated residents are advised to exercise caution, regardless.

New COVID-19 risk-based guidelines for those who are vaccinated, updated in light of the delta variant. Under stage 5 people those who are low risk should wear a mask if gathering, but those who are high risk should avoid gathering. Those who are low risk can travel, dine and shop with a mask, but those who are high risk should only travel if it's essential, should only dine if outdoors with a mask and do takeaway or curbside shoppingNew COVID-19 risk-based guidelines for those who are partially vaccinated or unvaccinated, updated in light of the delta variant. The graphic shows at all stages these people should wear masks when gathering indoors and outdoors, traveling, dining and shopping. At Stage 4 and 5 they should not participate in any of these activities except to get food and shopping done takeaway/curbside-- traveling only when essential under stage 4 and not at all at stage 5.
Slide to the right to see the recommendations for vaccinated people, slide left to see them for partially or unvaccinated people

The impending possibility of maskless student bodies has become an increasing concern for many Texas parents, as the start of a new school year intersects with a surge in the delta variant. Experts say the variant is proving more dangerous for children than previous strains.

Many of Texas’ biggest school districts have already implemented their own mask requirements, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and Austin ISDs. On Tuesday, Abbott responded in part: “violating the Governor’s orders — and violating parental rights — is not the way to do it.”

The city of Austin said Wednesday there has been “an increasing number of infants, children and teens” that have experienced severe illness due to the delta variant, especially those younger than 12 years old.

Currently, only children ages 12 and older are eligible to be vaccinated. Nevertheless, local hospitals are seeing pediatric facilities fill with new patients.

Meanwhile, several major Austin-area events have already been canceled, including Austin City Limits’ Blues on the Green live music performances and the Austin Pride festival and parade. Meanwhile, the Texas Tribune Festival has elected to move virtual.

COVID-19 in Texas

Statewide, the COVID-19 outlook is also dire. As of Tuesday, there were 206,716 active cases in Texas, including over 7,000 in just one day. Nearly 800 people were added to the hospitalized population, which totals 10,041. Eighty-four people died from COVID-19 on Tuesday.

Data from the Texas Department of State Health Services shows only about half of Texans, or 53.63%, are fully vaccinated.

KXAN’s August 10 COVID-19 dashboard, as compiled by Christopher Adams, using DSHS data (KXAN/Christopher Adams)

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