While the City of San Antonio and Bexar County can no longer require people to wear masks in City or County-owned buildings, people entering Bexar County courtrooms will still have to don a face covering for now.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order on May 18 that barred governmental entities from imposing mask mandates. That order doesn’t cover the judiciary, however, Judge Ron Rangel of the 379th District Court said Monday.

In-person jury trials, suspended since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, are scheduled to resume in June. On Tuesday, the first people serving on juries in-person will walk into various courtrooms in Bexar County, Rangel said. (Previously, a limited number of virtual jury trials had been occurring in civil cases only.)

Judges legally have the right to set the rules in their courtroom, Rangel said, and the executive order does not limit their ability to require masks. “And when it comes to these minimum health standard protocols, that actually … starts at the courthouse door. So what the law says is anybody that has a business related to the courts in any way, then they have to follow what the judges say,” Rangel said.

Texas Supreme Court staff attorney and spokesman Osler McCarthy confirmed the governor’s order does not cover the courts.

“Judges adhere to court rules in this case set by the Supreme Court as an independent branch, not a gubernatorial order,” he said in an email.

State-supported living centers, government-owned or operated hospitals, Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities, Texas Juvenile Justice Department facilities, and county and municipal jails are also exempt from Abbott’s May 18 executive order.

Rangel serves as the local administrative judge, giving him oversight of the civil and criminal courts of Bexar County. Part of his responsibility includes issuing minimum health standards for the Bexar County courts during the pandemic that follow the guidelines established by public health officials and the Texas Supreme Court, he said.

The current standards for Bexar County courts include maintaining six feet of physical distance from others and wearing a mask. Though CDC guidelines now say that vaccinated people can forgo those prevention measures, Rangel said all of the judges seem to be fine with continuing with the established minimum health standards of the courthouse and that he plans to update these standards for the courts once the Texas Supreme Court issues a new emergency order, which is expected later this week.

A staggered schedule is being implemented to avoid crowding in the courts as in-person trials start up again. Each day, one criminal court and one civil court will have access to a large room that previously served as a jury room. The misdemeanor courts will have access to two courtrooms a day, which they can use because their juries are only six instead of 12 people, Rangel said.

In each courtroom, plastic shields will cover the judge, court staff, the gallery, and the jury, Rangel said. Each judge handles their own courtroom independently, but Rangel said he has advised them to read the public health guidelines to jurors that explain fully vaccinated people do not have to wear masks or maintain physical distance from others, while people who are still not vaccinated should keep their face masks on and still stay at least six feet away from people not in their household. Jurors will also be able to self-separate within the courtroom based on vaccination status.

“We’re not allowed legally to ask anybody if they have been fully vaccinated, so we can’t do that,” Rangel said. “So it’s kind of on the honor system.”

District Attorney Joe Gonzales said because of Abbott’s executive order, he cannot require his prosecutors or staff to wear masks, but they will need to follow the rules of each judge’s courtroom. He also estimated that his office’s backlog of cases, built up over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, would take months to resolve. 

“It’s our hope that we will catch up but it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight,” he said during a Monday news conference. “It would be hard for me to predict but we’re talking not weeks but a matter of months – hopefully not years.”

Gonzales said he has requested extra prosecutors in Bexar County’s next fiscal year budget to help with the backlog, which is hovering around 50,000 cases right now. 

“We’re doing the best we can with what we have presently,” he said.

Rangel said he estimated the backlog will take a year to resolve. The courts have enlisted two extra judges to help with the caseload who will mostly oversee pleas.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.