Every person stepping foot inside the Bexar County Courthouse complex must now don a face mask, whether or not they are vaccinated.
The mandate comes from Judge Ron Rangel of the 379th District Court, who signed an order with the mask requirement last Thursday. The complex includes the county courthouse and the adjacent Cadena Reeves Justice Center and Paul Elizondo Tower. The order also applies to all Justice of the Peace buildings and the juvenile justice courts.
“The Covid 19 positivity rate has increased in Bexar County for the third consecutive week,” Rangel wrote in his order. “This new influx of cases is largely due to the highly transmissible Delta variant. Aside from vaccinations, the Center for Disease Control and our local health authority advise that wearing face coverings is the single most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus.”
Bexar County has seen an increase in coronavirus cases over the past several weeks. The coronavirus positivity case rate in Bexar County jumped to 17% in the period of July 17 and July 23. Hospitalization rates have been steadily climbing as well; area hospitals reported 473 COVID patients between July 21 and July 27, with 134 in intensive care and 59 on ventilators during that same time. On Monday, the hospital census had soared to 855 COVID-19 patients, according to the authority that oversees the region’s trauma centers and emergency rooms.
Rangel serves as the county’s local administrative judge and therefore has oversight on how those courts are run. He first put mask requirements in place in May for those who were unvaccinated; the July 29 order extends the requirement to vaccinated people as well. Before that order was issued and during the trial of Otis Tyrone McKane, most people had been going maskless.
The July 29 order specified that the mask mandate applies to people who “will be involved in court business.” Rangel said he decided to tailor his order more narrowly in deference to other county officials who do business in buildings that also have courtrooms.
Rangel’s orders are not affected by those of Gov. Greg Abbott, who banned government entities from imposing mask mandates in July. Throughout the Bexar County courthouse, however, visitors might find differences in how the policy is carried out. Instead of a blanket mandate, Rangel placed the onus of enforcement on individual judges in their respective courtrooms.
“The wording is very specific in a way to not put [county officials] in a position where they don’t know what to do,” Rangel said. “I don’t want to force them to do something that they’re not comfortable with.”
Rangel first implemented mask requirements for Bexar County courts when he reopened the building for in-person jury trials in June. In the previous minimum health standards detailed by Rangel and issued on June 9, all unvaccinated public visitors were directed to wear face coverings while in the courthouse complex.
With the order in effect, Rangel said he asks everyone to mask up in his courtroom and has not faced pushback. He does ask witnesses and attorneys to remove their masks when speaking; he takes his face mask off when he talks as well, Rangel said. Each judge can choose how they approach the mask requirement and none have indicated they will not require masks in their courtrooms, he said.
In accordance with current public health guidelines, social distancing is only recommended for unvaccinated individuals, Rangel said.
During a Wednesday briefing, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff expressed his support for Rangel taking extra precautions to halt the spread of the coronavirus within courtrooms.
“We have a tremendous number of people coming into the courthouse every day,” Wolff said. “It’s a big problem for us and we would like to be able to mandate masks for anybody to come into the courthouse.”