This story has been updated.
The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday blocked San Antonio and Bexar County from requiring masks in city- and county-owned buildings and in public schools, the latest blow to the local government mandate amid a heated legal battle over public health measures.
A Bexar County district judge granted the city and county a temporary injunction last Monday, allowing them to require masks. Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately appealed that decision on behalf of Gov. Greg Abbott to the 4th Court of Appeals, which upheld the temporary injunction. On Monday, Paxton asked the Texas Supreme Court to consider stopping San Antonio and Bexar County’s mask mandates.
In its decision, the state supreme court stated mask mandates altered the status quo, which should be maintained before a trial on the original mask mandate lawsuit is completed.
“This case, and others like it, are not about whether people should wear masks or whether the government should make them do it,” the court wrote. “Rather, these cases ask courts to determine which government officials have the legal authority to decide what the government’s position on such questions will be. The status quo, for many months, has been gubernatorial oversight of such decisions at both the state and local levels.”
Paxton exulted in the court’s decision.
“The Texas Supreme Court has sided with the law, and the decision to enforce mask mandates lies with the governor’s legislatively-granted authority,” Paxton said in a statement. “Mask mandates across our state are illegal, and judges must abide by the law. Further non-compliance will result in more lawsuits.”
The ruling won’t change anything for many San Antonio-area school districts, many of which implemented their own mask mandates. The exception is North East Independent School District, which said in a statement on its website that it can no longer enforce the mask mandate the school board adopted Aug. 19. But the mandate will remain in place.
San Antonio ISD adopted a mask mandate for all who enter school facilities and a staff vaccine mandate on Aug. 16, and those mandates will remain in effect, district spokeswoman Laura Short said.
“We have not wavered since we implemented our mask mandate,” SAISD said in a statement. “In fact, we are more committed than ever. Our focus remains on protecting the health of those in our care and the stability of student learning. We are staying the course.”
Edgewood, South San Antonio, and Harlandale ISDs will maintain their mask mandates. Harlandale ISD Superintendent Gerardo Soto said in a statement that the district’s commitment and priority is the “health and safety of students, staff, and parents.”
“Throughout this legal back-and-forth on masking, we have always remained on the side of safety first, said Brad Domitrovich, spokesman for South San ISD. “Even when we opened school, we recommended people wear masks, and 99.9% of people did.”
District officials for Southside, Southwest, and Northside ISDs said they will keep their mask mandates in place and that the ruling does not mean Abbott’s executive order is enforceable now because other lawsuits challenging the governor’s authority to prohibit mask mandates have resulted in courts blocking the executive order.
“While the legal debate continues, NISD remains committed to keeping the health and safety of students, staff, and visitors to our facilities a priority,” NISD spokesman Barry Perez said in a statement. “We believe that we have an ethical obligation to our students and staff to keep them safe. We also believe that the universal use of face coverings prevents illness and quarantine that takes students and staff away from in-person instruction.”
Southwest ISD Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft agreed, saying the mask mandate is working to keep schools open along with other safety protocols, such as frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and disinfecting school facilities with “hospital-grade cleaners.”
“It’s a layer of safety amongst the many layers of safety,” he said. “We’re going to continue with our plan as it is, and that seems to be working. Our goal will remain the same. We want to keep our schools open. We want to keep our classrooms open and support our students and keep everyone safe.”
Somerset ISD Superintendent Saul Hinojosa will discuss the matter with the school board and legal counsel before making a decision over whether to rescind its mask mandate, district spokeswoman Natalie Martinez said.
District Attorney Joe Gonzales said he would defer to the Texas Education Agency’s current position that it would not enforce Abbott’s prohibition of mask mandates until the many court issues surrounding that are resolved. Gonzales said he would not prosecute any school district within Bexar County that requires masks.
“I understand that this litigation has been confusing for public officials, administrators and, most importantly, the public,” he said in a statement. “Rest assured that we are working tirelessly to protect those who cannot protect themselves. I continue to urge those who are eligible for a COVID vaccine and/or a booster to get vaccinated and to continue to wear a mask to prevent the spread of this virus.”
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said he was disappointed to hear the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling.
“I support the position of the District Attorney and thank him for all of his hard work and, most importantly, for his commitment to protecting the health and safety of our most vulnerable population,” Wolff said in a statement. “I also hope that our school districts will continue to put our children and our educators first during this time and continue with their masking protocols.”
San Antonio and Bexar County originally sued Abbott on Aug. 10 over his July executive order prohibiting governmental entities from issuing mask mandates. They argued that he overstepped his authority as governor by suspending laws that allow local governments to put public health measures in place within their jurisdictions. The state maintains that the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives him that power. A trial on the lawsuit is scheduled for Dec. 13.
The Texas Supreme Court had previously blocked a temporary restraining order issued to the city and county by Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga of the 57th Civil District Court. Arteaga also granted San Antonio and Bexar County their temporary injunction, which gave them the authority to require masks in their buildings and in public schools until the trial took place.
Other major Texas counties also have mask mandates in place and have sued Abbott over his executive order prohibiting them. Dallas County’s mask mandate was upheld by a Dallas district court judge on Wednesday. The Texas Supreme Court recently allowed mask mandates in Travis and Harris County to continue as well, though that is expected to only be temporary.
Brooke Crum contributed to this report.