Greg Abbott

Gov. Greg Abbott can ban local COVID-19 mask mandates, Texas Supreme Court rules

The ruling undoes conflicting opinions from three Texas appeals courts in suits from Dallas, Harris and Bexar counties

The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that Gov. Greg Abbott has the authority to call off local mask mandates in response to COVID-19 or any other disasters.

The court ruled in a case from Harris County that the county’s local disaster response authority does not supersede executive orders from the governor. The unanimous opinion rendered moot lawsuits from Dallas and Bexar Counties filed after Abbott issued an executive order in 2021 banning mask mandates.

“We hold that, during a declared disaster, the Governor has the lawful authority to prohibit local officials from imposing mask requirements in response to a contagious disease,” Justice Jimmy Blacklock wrote for the court.

The suit centered around Abbott’s June 2021 executive order that prohibited local authorities from requiring masks or issuing vaccine mandates in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the executive order only applied to the COVID-19 pandemic, Friday’s ruling provided what appears to be a clear precedent for any future conflicts between the state and local government authority over the response to any disasters.

“Rarely in Texas law would a direct conflict between state authority and local authority be resolved in favor of local authority, and the statutes at issue do not dictate such an upside-down result here,” Blacklock said in the ruling.

The ruling nixes orders from three separate appeals courts that found the governor’s executive order violated the Texas Constitution. The Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas ruled in November 2022 that Abbott’s executive order violated Dallas County’s ability to manage the response to the pandemic.

“Obviously we’re disappointed with the decision, but it is also quite clear in indicating the decisions of the governor are supreme over all local authorities in any and all disasters, period,” said Doug Alexander, the lead attorney for Dallas County in the case.

Dallas County’s top health official, Dr. Philip Huang, said it is important to have options when it comes to facing a public health emergency. He said the necessary response looks different in cities than in rural areas.

“We try to look at what the situation is and what would be the best way to save lives. It’s not always uniform,” he said. “I know the state doesn’t like it when the federal government creates mandates.”

He oversees the Dallas County Health and Human Services Department, where staff tracked the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic and the public health committee provided COVID-19 restriction recommendations.

To read more, visit our partners at the Dallas Morning News.

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