A day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended children wear masks in school and people vaccinated against COVID-19 return to wearing masks indoors in hotspot areas like Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued a new executive order making it harder for local officials to require anyone wear face coverings.
Abbott's said his latest order, GA-38 (see below), is related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and is designed "to promote statewide uniformity and certainty in the state's COVID-19 response" by combining several existing orders into one.
Some of the previous orders had to do with COVID-19 testing and the continued availability of information coming from hospitals with regard to bed capacity. The order also clarifies the state's policy on vaccines, specifically related to governmental entities or entities using public funds not being able to require them or proof of having had one to receive services. The order also recommends businesses follow guidance from health authorities but said they may continue to operate as they wish, without limitations, even if cases and hospitalizations rise above the previous lockdown thresholds.
The governor's new order then begins to address masking, apparently in response to recent requests from local and state leaders and education associations who called on him for help and asked him to give local school districts the autonomy to decide if masking was necessary for their area.
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It's not clear if the governor responded to any of the requests directly. However, his position remains clear in the order enacted Thursday in which he suspended several state statutes "to ensure that local governmental entities or officials do not impose any such face-covering requirements."
In GA-38, Abbott suspended two sections of the Texas Government Code that included rules for designating some local officials as emergency management directors and gave them the authority to declare local states of disaster. The governor also suspended three entire chapters and a subchapter of the Texas Health and Safety Code, and a chapter of the Local Government Code.
To make sure there was no wiggle room, Abbott also issued a blanket suspension of "any other statute invoked by any local governmental entity or official in support of a face-covering requirement."
According to the governor's order, anyone who tries to impose a face-covering mandate faces a fine of up to $1,000 but will not face any time in jail.
Abbott reiterated Thursday a message he'd been repeating for the last couple of weeks that "the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates."
The governor's latest directive ensures that his orders are the ones Texans will live by and not those created by local elected officials.
Meanwhile, on the same afternoon in which the governor said "Texans have mastered the safe practices that help to prevent and avoid the spread of COVID-19" the Texas Department of State Health Services reported another 370 people were hospitalized for the virus overnight and another 6,400 people were infected. In the last week, the state has added more than 35,000 new cases of the virus and hospitalizations have climbed from around 3,600 to more than 5,600.
Despite the numbers of new cases and hospitalizations that have been surging for weeks, Abbott said Texans "have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, and engage in leisure activities."
Abbott has advocated for the use of vaccines in fighting the coronavirus, but the concern of many is that plan of attack excludes tens of thousands of schoolchildren who are not yet old enough to be protected from the virus by a vaccine.
With scores of unvaccinated children heading back into classrooms next month, including some as early as next Monday, many are worried unmasked children could be vectors of the highly transmissible delta variant passing the virus between themselves, teachers, and families at home.
The TSTA on Tuesday urged the governor to give school districts the power to decide if requiring masks on their campuses is the best course of action for protecting the health of everyone in schools saying, if he "really cares about the health and safety of Texas students, educators, and their communities, he will give local school officials and health experts the option of requiring masks in their schools."
Thursday afternoon, after the order was issued, the TSTA continued to call on Abbott to let local districts decide masking policies for themselves.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who has sparred with Abbott over mandates and public health policy throughout the pandemic, said the governor's order "is based on polling data of what Republican primary voters want to hear, conversely, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations are based on the most recent data regarding the much more contagious delta variant and what scientists and medical professionals have learned thus far to combat the spread and harm of COVID."
The rest of Jenkins' statement on GA-38 can be read below.