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local control

Ken Paxton keeps trying to kill the SAISD vaccine mandate

On brand, always on brand.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed another petition seeking to reverse a Bexar County judge’s decision that rejected the state’s bid for a temporary injunction to block the San Antonio Independent School District’s staff vaccine mandate.

Even though SAISD’S vaccine mandate remains on pause despite the court’s ruling in its favor, Paxton said he will “continue fighting for medical freedom.”

“Nobody should be bullied, coerced, and certainly not fired because of their COVID-19 vaccination status,” said Paxon in his announcement, adding the decision is not only an affront to individual liberty, but “illegal under Texas law.”

“The governor’s executive order specifically protects workers from the type of mass firings that San Antonio ISD is seeking, and I will continue to fight in court to defend GA-39 and Texans’ medical freedom,” he said.

The petition was filed Sept. 7 with the Texas Supreme Court.

An SAISD spokeswoman said in a statement that the vaccine mandate remains suspended and that no employee was ever disciplined for refusing to get the vaccine.

See here and here for the previous updates. There’s a recitation of the long history of this legal saga in the story if you want that. I remind you that this mandate was never enforced and remains on pause, not that these things matter to Ken Paxton. The appellate court ruling that Greg Abbott doesn’t have the power he claimed to have when he forbade these mandates seems pretty clear to me, but you never know what SCOTx will do. Now we wait to see if they’ll take this up.

Republicans for Collier

Two of them, anyway.

Mike Collier

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, one of Texas’ most prominent Republican local leaders, is backing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Democratic challenger.

“The one person who I’ll support statewide that will get me a little in trouble: Mike Collier for lieutenant governor,” Whitley said on Y’all-itics, a WFAA politics podcast.

Whitley and Patrick have frequently clashed, and on the podcast Whitley slammed Patrick for waging “war on local elected officials.”

Just days after Whitley made the endorsement that crossed party lines, an out-going Republican state senator from Amarillo has followed suit. Kel Seliger plans to vote for Collier in November, a spokesperson for Seliger told The Texas Tribune. Seliger is one of the most senior Republicans in the upper chamber, but has also famously been at odds with Patrick. Neither Whitley nor Seliger are running for reelection.

At the center of Whitley’s disdain for Patrick is a bill shepherded by the lieutenant governor in 2019 meant to slow the growth of Texans’ property tax bills. The bill requires many cities, counties and other taxing units to hold an election if they wish to raise 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year, not counting the growth added by new construction.

But Whitley said the bill put Tarrant County in a tight position because property taxes are a major source of revenue for local governments. Meanwhile, Whitley said Tarrant County jails are housing more than 700 inmates that should be in state custody without additional funding from the state. The COVID-19 pandemic and the inability to make jail transfers contributed to state inmates being held in county jails, Community Impact reported.

“We’re paying 20 million plus a year because the state is not paying anything and yet they’re sitting down there talking about all the cash that they’ve got,” Whitley said.

For Seliger, his vote against Patrick this November comes after years of tensions with the lieutenant governor. Seliger is rare among Republicans in the upper chamber for his occasional willingness to go against Patrick. He has said he’s been punished for voting against a pair of the lieutenant governor’s top priorities in 2017, a bill aimed at restricting local governments’ abilities to raise property taxes and a program that would have subsidized private school tuition and home-schooling expenses. In the following session, Patrick stripped Seliger of his title as chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee. During a 2021 redistricting session, Seliger also voiced concern that Patrick was drawing his district to favor Seliger’s competitor.

[…]

Whitley said he is backing Collier because of Collier’s experience controlling budgets. Collier, an accountant and auditor from the Houston area, is a self-described “numbers guy.” Collier also worked as a landman for Exxon, which Whitley said indicated the Democratic nominee understood the oil business.

“And I just think he’s someone who understands local control. And that’s what I’m looking for,” added Whitley, who as county judge is the county’s top elected official and administrator. “We do everything. We’re the front door for basically all the federal and the state services that the state and the federal government passed laws for us to do.”

This is all nice to see, as is Dan Patrick’s little temper tantrum in response. I’ve said before (many, many times) that nothing will change until Texas’ government changes, and the fastest way for that to happen is for enough people to change how they’ve been voting. I generally don’t believe that endorsements move a lot of votes, but they can move a few, and they can also signal that something is in the air. We’ll know soon enough if this makes any difference – if nothing else, we’ll see what if any effect there is in the precinct data – but I’ll say this much: If Dan Patrick’s political demise can be traced even in part to a fight over local control and bad blood over redistricting, there’s not enough sugar in the world to emulate how sweet that would be. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: And today, outgoing Sen. Eddie Lucio endorses Dan Patrick. I am so glad we are seeing the last of that jackass.

Dallas passes its ordinance to protect abortion access

Good job.

Dallas City councilmembers almost unanimously passed the “Grace Act,” an ordinance aimed at deprioritizing investigations into abortions by local police departments.

[…]

This new resolution prevents city resources from being used to create records for a person seeking an abortion, or to provide governmental bodies or agencies about pregnancy outcomes or to conduct surveillance to determine if an abortion occurred.

Investigations or prosecutions of abortion allegations will also be the lowest priority for law enforcement under the “Grace Act.”

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia was in attendance for the City Council meeting and was asked before the ordinance passed how the Dallas Police Department would enforce the resolution while complying with their sworn oath to enforce state law.

“We don’t know yet,” Garcia said plainly. “Myself and other chiefs in other cities don’t know exactly how this is going to look.”

Once DPD gets some direction from other cities or the state, Garcia said he would work with the city manager to figure out what standard operating procedures will be with the new resolution in mind.

“Having a policy that says you will not enforce a law on the books would be a violation of our police officer’s oath,” Garcia said. “Using discretion is different than saying you will not enforce a law in the State of Texas.”

See here for some background. As we know, Austin, Denton, and San Antonio have already taken similar action. We’re still waiting for Waco, and I have no idea if this is on the radar for Houston. Only Mayor Turner can put it on the Council agenda, and I have not seen any quotes from him about his thinking on the matter. I’ve no doubt such an ordinance would pass, but so far I don’t know if one will be introduced. If you have some insight on this, I’d love to hear it.

San Antonio passes its abortion access ordinance

Good.

With a 9-2 vote, San Antonio City Council approved a resolution on Tuesday that condemns Texas’ abortion ban and recommends that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to abortions.

“By passing this resolution, the City of San Antonio is committing to not using any city funds or data to sell out persons seeking out a safe abortion,” said Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who spearheaded the resolution. “Furthermore, council is communicating to our governmental relations team that … protecting persons seeking an abortion is a priority heading into the state legislative session.”

More than 100 people signed up to speak during the raucous, nearly five-hour meeting. The speakers offered impassioned, often emotional testimony in favor and opposed to the resolution and the right to choose. Mayor Ron Nirenberg paused the meeting briefly after shouting erupted during testimony.

“While the legal authority over reproductive health policy lies with the state and federal governments, we do refuse to stand idly by and watch an important constitutional right, be taken away without speaking on behalf of our constituents,” Nirenberg said. “As federal and state law changes in the future, we must do all we can to support and gain ground for reproductive freedom.”

The resolution makes exceptions for investigations into instances where “coercion or force is used against the pregnant person, or in cases involving conduct criminally negligent to the health of the pregnant person seeking care.”

Several proponents of the resolution asked that more specific language be added to direct police to “deprioritize” abortion investigations.

The resolution does not prevent local law enforcement from investigating criminal cases of abortion, because the council cannot tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to state law and the city’s charter. Council can only make recommendations.

The resolution “does not decriminalize” abortion, City Attorney Andy Segovia said. “It does articulate a policy recommendation from the council.”

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales has said he doesn’t plan on prosecuting abortion providers under the ban.

See here for the background. As we know, Dallas and Waco are also in the queue for similar action. As yet, I haven’t seen any response to ordinances like this one and the one passed by Austin from the likes of Abbott or Patrick or Paxton; they may just be talking on their channels and it hasn’t gotten to the regular news yet, or maybe they’re just keeping their powder dry for now. It’s just a matter of time, I’m sure. The Current has more.

Dallas joins the abortion decriminalization queue

Good for them.

The Dallas City Council could consider a resolution in August aimed at blunting the impact of the Texas Legislature’s trigger law that will go into effect following the Supreme Court’s decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade.

Dallas’ measure would direct city staff—which includes the Dallas Police Department—to make investigating and prosecuting accusations of abortion “the lowest priority for enforcement” and instructs City Manager T.C. Broadnax to not use “city resources, including … funds, personnel, or hardware” to create records regarding individual pregnancy outcomes, provide information about pregnancy outcomes to any agency, or to investigate whether an abortion has occurred, a draft copy of the resolution obtained by D reads.

“I would say that it technically really does accomplish the decriminalization here locally,” said Dallas City Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who worked on the resolution and chairs the committee that will consider the matter before it goes to the full Council. “Being the lowest priority, … there’s not much of an investigation that could be done if there’s no resources that are able to be allocated.”

The measure does not apply to instances where law enforcement officials might need to investigate cases of criminal negligence by a practitioner in the care of a pregnant person, or where force or coercion is used against a pregnant person.

The resolution will be introduced in a special-called meeting of the council’s Quality of Life, Arts, and Culture Committee Tuesday. If approved by the committee, he aims to have it before the full Council at its Aug. 10 meeting. If it passes, Dallas would join many cities that have sought restrictions with similar resolutions, including Denton, Waco, and Austin. The San Antonio City Council will vote on its resolution Tuesday.

Yes, Denton and Waco. You knew about San Antonio and Austin, now you can add these three to the list.

Bazaldua said he knows the city can do little about the law itself, but he hopes this resolution would provide a measure of protection for healthcare providers who could face felony charges if suspected of providing an abortion. Pregnant people would also have similar protections, he said.

“There’s only so much that can be done at the local level and this is about as much as we can get,” he said, adding that after the resolution is passed, ideally the city would begin working with nonprofit and private-sector partners to help people locate resources if they need to travel to another state for an abortion.

He also doesn’t see this resolution endangering the city when it comes to another recently passed law that would penalize cities that “defund” their police departments. He argues that funding isn’t being reduced.

“What can they do? Punish a city for saying this should not be a priority of ours?” he said. “When we have violent crime that’s going on, that we should be focusing our resources and funding on?”

I mean, I wouldn’t put anything past Ken Paxton or the forced-birth fanatics in the Lege, but on its face that’s a strong argument. It’s also consistent with the earlier advice we saw about what cities can do on their end. I don’t know how this will play out – I cannot overemphasize how much effect the November elections could have in blunting the worst possible effects of the new anti-abortion laws and preventing the creation of new ones – but it feels good to do something, even if it may be transient. One has to wonder when there will be some action in Houston on this front. Is there a campaign going on about this that I haven’t seen yet?

San Antonio will make its statement for abortion rights

More symbolic than anything, but it still has meaning.

Five San Antonio City Council members and the mayor stood in support of a largely symbolic measure Wednesday that would attempt to “decriminalize” abortion locally.

Council is expected to approve a resolution during a special meeting called for Tuesday that would essentially condemn Texas’ abortion ban and recommend that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to the ban.

“Women and individuals who are seeking access to abortion need to know that their elected officials are standing by them and will not allow city resources to be used to collect any data to potentially criminalize or prosecute them,” Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who drafted the resolution and held the press conference outside City Hall, told the San Antonio Report after the event.

The resolution cannot prevent local enforcement from investigating criminal cases of abortion, Castillo acknowledged, because the council cannot tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to the city’s charter.

“But it’s a step in the right direction and it’s a step to build upon and implement additional policy,” she said.

Castillo didn’t elaborate on what additional policies council might consider, but said she was looking forward to hearing ideas from the community and her colleagues.

Castillo and Mayor Ron Nirenberg were joined by council members Mario Bravo (D1), Phyllis Viagran (D3), Melissa Cabello-Havrda (D6) and John Courage (D9); together, the six represent a majority of council.

The resolution is similar to the GRACE Act that the Austin City Council approved this week. That, too, was a symbolic policy recommendation, as Austin’s charter has similar rules around the direction of law enforcement.

See here for some background on Austin’s actions, about which you know what I think. I’m curious at this point to see how many other Texas cities follow in these footsteps. If it’s still relevant next year, – if there hasn’t been a federal law passed to reinstate abortion rights, and if the Lege hasn’t passed some crazy law to shut this down, and if this cause hasn’t been taken up yet here – I’ll be asking every candidate for Mayor and City Council that I interview what they think about doing the same thing in Houston. Texas Public Radio and the Current have more.

SAISD vaccine mandate upheld again

Also still on hold, but the state loses again at the appellate level.

A state appellate court upheld San Antonio Independent School District’s authority Wednesday to mandate its workers get vaccinated against COVID-19, almost a year after the district instituted the requirement for all staff to help stem the spread of the virus.

The 4th Court of Appeals on Wednesday denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to overturn a Bexar County judge’s decision not to grant the state a temporary injunction to block the staff vaccine mandate. Judge Mary Lou Alvarez of the 45th District Court issued that ruling in October, allowing SAISD to continue enforcing the mandate.

The court also ordered that the costs of the appeal be assessed against the state.

Paxton filed a lawsuit against SAISD in September, after first suing the district over the mandate in August because the vaccine had not been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. The August lawsuit was dropped after the FDA approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

The lawsuit has wound its way through the state court system over the past year. Paxton’s office appealed Alvarez’s ruling to the 4th Court of Appeals and also requested the appellate court temporarily block the mandate while it considered Paxton’s appeal. The attorney general then requested the state Supreme Court step in and halt the mandate, which it did in mid-October.

The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling forced SAISD to stop enforcing the mandate while the 4th Court of Appeals considered the state’s appeal of the temporary injunction that Alvarez denied.

[…]

Paxton’s lawsuit argued that SAISD’s vaccine mandate violated Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting governmental entities from implementing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which the governor claimed he had the authority to do under the Texas Disaster Act. Attorneys for SAISD challenged that reasoning, contending the Act does not give the governor the power to suspend all state laws.

Wednesday’s ruling by the 4th Court of Appeals determined that the Texas Disaster Act does not give Abbott the authority to suspend parts of the Education Code that allow school districts to issue vaccine mandates.

“The Texas Disaster Act expressly limits the Governor’s commander-in-chief authority to state agencies, state boards, and state commissions having emergency responsibilities,” the ruling states. “The District is not a state agency, a state board, or a state commission. Rather, the Texas Disaster Act defines the District as a ‘local government entity.’”

See here for the previous update. This sounds like a solid ruling, one that SCOTx ought to uphold, though who knows what they’ll actually do. It would also be written on sand to some extent, in that if the Republicans retain full control of government next year they’ll just amend the Texas Disaster Act to make it cover school districts and/or explicitly exclude anything having to do with vaccinations. In the meantime, even though the policy remains on hold during the litigation, it’s surely the case that the mandate got some holdouts vaccinated during the period while it was in effect. That will always be a win, no matter what happens from here.

Austin takes its shot at protecting abortion access

I wish them great success. I don’t think the fanatics in the Legislature will let them achieve it, but we’ll see.

Austin City Council unanimously (in the absence of lone Republican Mackenzie Kelly) approved four items on Thursday, July 21 that aim to provide people within the city some legal protection should they seek or perform an abortion.

The special meeting was called following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. last month, which overturned its prior Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood decisions guaranteeing a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. In Texas, 2021’s Senate Bill 8 already made those providing or “aiding and abetting” abortion care after about six weeks (before many people know of their pregnancies) liable to civil lawsuits that can be filed by anybody.

[…]

The item most likely to have immediate impact is known as the GRACE Act (Guarding the Right to Abortion Care for Everyone), a measure introduced by Council Member Chito Vela which directs the Austin Police Department to “deprioritize” investigations into criminal offenses related to abortion.

Effectively, that means Council is asking APD (technically, they’re asking City Manager Spencer Cronk to ask APD Chief Joseph Chacon) not to devote any financial resources or labor to investigating cases related to abortions. Exceptions in the measure include instances where an abortion is being coerced, or when a provider is accused of negligence.

For now, APD has not indicated how it will respond to the GRACE Act. Chacon will have to work with his executive team and the city’s Law Department on implementation, but have not provided insight into what that might look like or how long it might take. In response to questions from the Chronicle, an APD spokesperson said, “We are working through the resolution and we’ll present next time when we come back to Council.”

The unanimous Council (Kelly missing the meeting due to a previously scheduled surgery) also approved an ordinance initiated by CM Vanessa Fuentes to protect people who’ve received “reproductive health actions” from discrimination in housing, employment, or access to public services. The other two resolutions adopted at the meeting were both from Mayor Steve Adler and related to “long-term birth control,” including vasectomy. One directs Cronk to explore a public education campaign about birth control options and to ensure that city employees’ health insurance covers “low-cost birth control.” (From an insurer’s perspective, vasectomy and tubal ligation are lower-cost than ongoing hormonal or barrier birth control.) Cronk is expected to report back to Council no later than Sept. 30.

Adler’s second resolution asks staff to recommend budget provisions that would enable city employees to have “reasonable access to reproductive health care services that are no longer lawfully available in Texas.” This resolution does not include a report-back date, but presumably staff would need to offer recommendations soon if they are to be adopted along with the city’s fiscal year 2023 budget on Aug. 17.

Rockie Gonzalez, deputy director of the Austin Justice Coalition and founder of the Frontera Fund, which has organized around abortion access in the Rio Grande Valley since 2014, told the Chronicle that she was encouraged by the items Council passed. “The most important thing for advocates right now is to get decriminalization measures and protections in place for folks seeking abortions, those providing abortions and those helping other folks to get the abortion care that they need.”

The GRACE Act does not protect organizations, like the Lilith Fund in Austin, that had been helping individuals coordinate and pay for access to abortions. Depending on how APD implements the direction, however, it could protect someone who decides to help a friend or family member access an abortion. Still, Gonzalez said, the measures will help abortion care advocates in Austin because they will not have to focus as much on the criminalization of abortion in Texas.

“Locally, impact on abortion advocates is going to be a little bit of wiggle room and protection to do the advocacy work that we need to continue to do,” Gonzalez told us. “In Austin, at least, we won’t need to focus as much on creating bail funds and securing legal support for folks who might be criminalized” for seeking an abortion. She also hopes advocates can work together to pass similar measures in other cities throughout Texas.

See here and here for some background. If the Austin PD is amenable to this, then there ought to be some decriminalization benefit, at least in the short term. We know the forced-birth caucus in the Legislature will find ways to shut this down, but it’s still something for now.

The bigger problem in the meantime is the threat of SB8, the vigilante bounty hunter law, which hasn’t been used yet but is being prepped for weaponization as we speak. There’s not only nothing that the city of Austin can do to prevent those attacks, the city may find itself on the wrong side of SB8-enabled lawsuits as a result of these actions. Again, I hate to sound like a doomsayer, but these people aren’t subtle and they won’t hold back. The only way to really fight back is at the state and federal level, where the levers available to take action are much more powerful. I wish this kind of ground-level resistance could be successful. My fear is that it will be steamrolled. I hope I’m wrong. The Texas Signal has more.

Is there one last twist in the West 11th Street saga?

This was posted as an update to the change.org petition in support of the West 11th Street project:

The opposition to making 11th street safer is asking TXDOT to stop the project-we need your help!

The group that has organized against making 11th street safer is not giving up after the mayor’s decision to move forward. Instead, they are asking TXDOT to intervene and stop the project, which the state has done before in Houston.

Please consider emailing your state representative (https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/home) and the governor (https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx) to express your support for the city’s plan to make 11th street safer.

See here for the previous update, which includes a comment making the same claim, that opponents of the project are going to TxDOT to try to stop it. I inquired about the reference to TxDOT stepping in on a project before in Houston, and I think that may have been said in error. There is the recent example of TxDOT taking control of a stretch of Broadway in San Antonio, which scuttled that city’s plans for a redesign that included a “road diet”. That piece of Broadway had previously been a part of the state highway system and was transferred to San Antonio a few years ago; TxDOT acted to rescind that transfer.

As far as I know, West 11th Street has only ever been a city of Houston street, so TxDOT would not have the same ability to intervene. That said, sticking it to cities is now a core component of Republican ideology, and making a similar move here would be politically consistent. I don’t know how to evaluate anything outside of a political lens these days. What I’m saying is that while I, a mostly normal person, don’t see a means for TxDOT to step in, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, not if Greg Abbott decides it’s a good idea. Another possibility would be for the Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill in 2023 that limits or bans “road diets” in some fashion, thus potentially stopping this project before it could be completed. Given the legislative calendar and the fact that construction is scheduled to start in the next couple of months, that seems less likely to be effective.

I really don’t know how the opponents can succeed here. There’s no clear path for them. But given everything we’ve seen and experienced recently, I’m hesitant to say it can’t happen. Go ahead and contact your legislators and the Governor’s office with your support. It can’t hurt.

There’s only so much that Austin (or any other Texas city) can do to protect abortion rights

I appreciate this, I really do, but it’s important to remember that it can only ever be a band-aid, and very likely a temporary one.

The city of Austin is attempting to shield its residents from prosecution under a Texas law that would criminalize almost all abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned — the first push by a major city in a red state to try to circumvent state abortion policy.

Councilmember Chito Vela is proposing a resolution that would direct the city’s police department to make criminal enforcement, arrest and investigation of abortions its lowest priority and restrict city funds and city staff from being used to investigate, catalogue or report suspected abortions.

“This is not an academic conversation. This is a very real conversation where people’s lives could be destroyed by these criminal prosecutions,” said Vela, who shared the details of the resolution first with POLITICO. “In Texas, you’re an adult at 17. We are looking at the prospect of a 17-year-old girl who has an unplanned pregnancy and is seeking an abortion [being] subjected to first-degree felony charges — up to 99 years in jail — and that’s just absolutely unacceptable.”

[…]

The new resolution doesn’t explicitly decriminalize abortion but rather directs police to make it their lowest enforcement priority in an effort to skirt conflict with state law, Vela said. But it highlights the tension between red state and the blue cities, where a new front in the battle over abortion rights is opening as the Supreme Court prepares to issue a decision on Roe in the coming weeks.

A city of Austin spokesperson said in a statement that “the city is prepared to take the steps necessary to implement this resolution upon passage by City Council.” The council passed a similar measure in 2020 that effectively decriminalized marijuana by ending arrests and fines for low-level possession, which the police department has followed.

Vela said he is having “ongoing conversations” with Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon about the proposal and hopes the department will comply with the directive. A department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

“The police do not want to be in the middle of this controversy. The police right now in Austin are struggling with staffing,” Vela said. “I don’t think the police want to dedicate resources to these types of, what I would call, ‘political crimes.’”

A spokesperson for state Attorney General Ken Paxton did not respond to a request for comment. Paxton, a Republican, has been at the vanguard of restricting abortion access in Texas, which has been in the spotlight since the state’s six-week abortion ban, enforced through a private right of action, took effect in September 2021.

Austin’s proposal, which aims to protect both patients and providers, comes as an extension of the city’s efforts to preserve abortion access despite the state’s restrictions. The city has, for instance, provided logistical support for abortion access, including transportation, lodging and child care, since 2019 — a model St. Louis is now looking to replicate.

More cities in Texas could be next. Julie Oliver, executive director of Ground Game Texas, a group that pushes for progressive, local ballot measures, said they are looking at pushing similar measures in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. If that isn’t successful, the group plans to turn to the local ballot initiative process.

“Home rule charter cities have a tremendous amount of leeway and self-governance, and part of that is deciding which laws you’re going to prioritize,” Oliver said. “And so, because you have a finite number of resources in a finite budget, cities are constantly deciding which laws they’re going to enforce and which ones they are not.”

I support the idea and I love the creativity, as we have discussed what progressive cities can do to protect abortion rights. That includes proactive measures to thwart prosecution, which is very much in a city’s purview. The problem with this approach is simply that as long as the state is run by Republicans, they will pass laws to prevent cities from taking these measures and will punish them for even trying. I’m sure I don’t have to recite to you the long list of attacks on local control lately, but we have already seen reporting to say that the Briscoe Cain uterus-invasion caucus will file bills in 2023 to allow other counties to pursue prosecution of anyone who violates the new forced-birth laws if the local DA refuses. It’s not at all far-fetched to imagine state troopers being given the authority to investigate these claims, which I’d bet will come with a bunch of money to hire more staff specifically for that purpose. I’m sure there will be more private vigilante bounties included as well, to help fund the effort. If recent history is any indicator, they will go much farther than anything Austin tries to do, to send a clear message that they will not tolerate any dissent. Do we really want to test that hypothesis?

Please note that I am not saying that any action on our part is pointless and we should just give up. Not at all! I am just saying – again, and again, and again – that we need to win some statewide elections. The Republicans can only do this as long as they are in control, and they will only be incentivized to do this as long as they perceive there’s no price to pay for it. The antidote for that is obvious. I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m certainly not saying that this will be an opportune year to do it. I’m just saying that as clever and well-intentioned as these ideas sound, they’re sand castles against the tide. The problem is bigger than anything a city can do. We have to solve it at that level if we want to get anywhere. Reform Austin, KVUE, and Daily Kos have more.

Appeals court upholds school district mask mandates

Maybe not the most timely ruling ever, but still nice.

An appellate court on Thursday sided with Texas school districts in their dispute with state officials over mask mandates, which numerous school systems have already lifted as pandemic conditions have eased.

The state’s the 3rd Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s orders that granted school districts temporary injunctive relief from the enforcement of an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting mask mandates.

In its opinion Thursday, the appellate court pointed to its opinion in a similar challenge involving Harris County. In that case, the court considered whether a disaster act gave the governor the authority to stop local government entities from implementing COVID-19 safety measures viewed by the governor as “more restrictive than necessary,” according to the opinion.

“For the reasons previously set forth in our opinion in Harris County, we again conclude that the Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by governmental entities and officials,” Thursday’s opinion read.

Many, if not all, school districts that defied Abbott’s order have lifted their mask mandates, including Houston, Dallas, Spring and Aldine ISDs, which were among the plaintiffs.

[…]

With the opinion, the court confirmed the state Education Code gave districts the authority to decide.

“We conclude that the Education Code provisions granting broad authority to local school districts and community college districts to govern and oversee public schools within their districts do not prescribe ‘the procedures for conduct of state business,’” the opinion stated. “In sum, the Texas Disaster Act does not grant the Governor absolute authority to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities, such as school districts, and the provisions of the Education Code relied on by the school districts in issuing their respective facecovering requirements are not subject to suspension under … the Act.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted before, the Supreme Court has yet to take up this question, though at this point maybe they just won’t since it’s not currently at issue. (That could of course change.) Ken Paxton is never one to take an L so I suspect he’ll continue to pursue this. I also strongly suspect that a top item on the agenda for the 2023 Lege, assuming no changes in the power structure, will be to amend the Education Code to explicitly prohibit school districts from making this policy without the permission of the Governor first. Have I mentioned that this is an important election coming up? Just checking. The San Antonio Report has more.

More school districts dropping mask mandates

Unsurprising.

Some of Texas’ biggest school districts are lifting mask mandates for students just weeks before spring break.

Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest district, and Dallas ISD announced Monday that they would not require students to wear masks. Austin ISD announced Wednesday it would stop requiring masks.

The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that coronavirus infection rates were slowing.

“It does give people hope for this spring,” said Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

All three districts enacted mask mandates in early August amid the delta variant surge and in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that says Texas schools can’t require masks.

At the time, dozens of school districts went against the governor’s order, and some were sued.

[…]

Candice Castillo, executive officer of student support services in Houston ISD, said recent data points to a dramatic downturn. In a district with about 195,000 students, there are 46 active cases, a 90% decrease in cases from the peak of omicron.

The district’s decision comes after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level from “severe” to “significant.”

“This is the right moment for us to make this decision,” Castillo said.

In Austin ISD, the district has seen a 97% decrease in cases over the last six weeks, and the current number of active cases represents less than 1% of the total student and staff population.

Stephanie Elizalde, Austin ISD superintendent, said Wednesday during an Austin ISD board meeting that the district is abiding by the CDC’s recommendations, but to keep in mind that the fluidity of the pandemic means that the mandate can come back when necessary.

See here for more on HISD lifting its mask mandate. You can feel however you want about this – I know a lot of people are still very apprehensive about easing off on precautions like masking, and I totally understand. I’m still masking in public indoor spaces, and likely will continue for the foreseeable future. But the point is, the districts got to make the decisions they thought were best, based on the status of the pandemic and the advice and guidance from the CDC. That more than anything is what we wanted and deserved. The fact that they managed to hold out in defiance of Abbott and Paxton for all this time is a victory. It could be a transient one – for sure, someone is going to file a bill next session to force school districts to bend the knee to the governor – but at least we have an election first that can affect that action. Again, that’s all we can reasonably ask for at this time.

On the matter of the still-unresolved litigation over the mandates and Abbott’s executive order banning them in the schools:

I Am Not A Lawyer, but my best guess is that SCOTx will eventually take this opportunity to decline to intervene on the grounds that there’s no longer a reason for them to get involved. I suppose they could order the lawsuits to be dismissed, but here’s where my non-lawyerness comes to the fore, because I don’t know if that’s a thing they normally do. Be that as it may, the stars have aligned for them the sidestep a politically charged case, and that I know is a thing they like to do.

Two new polls of the Governor’s race

One is in the news.

Beto O’Rourke

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is running 11 percentage points ahead of Democrat Beto O’Rourke in this year’s race for Texas governor, according to a Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll released Sunday.

Buoyed by 2-to-1 support among whites and a growing number of voters who identify as Republican, Abbott leads O’Rourke in a hypothetical matchup, 47%-36%. He even holds a narrow lead over O’Rourke among Hispanics, 40%-39%.

Registered voters are not in a great mood about Texas’ current direction: 50% say things are on the wrong track, compared with 49% who say the state is headed in the right direction.

Still, Abbott dodges much of the blame. His job rating has held at a respectable net approval, 50%-45%. While he’s still underwater with independent voters, with only 37% of them approving of how he’s performing, he draws unfavorable views from just 38% of all voters.

President Joe Biden is viewed unfavorably by 57% of Texans. That may be one factor weighing down O’Rourke, who in November was only six percentage points behind the incumbent. Abbott also has been linking the former El Paso congressman and presidential candidate to Biden, saying in ads that O’Rourke is too liberal and untrustworthy to lead Texas.

The poll, conducted Jan. 18-25, surveyed 1,082 adults who are registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Abbott increased his lead over O’Rourke, which in November stood at just 45%-39%, with modest, “single-digit shifts” among various constituencies, said UT-Tyler political scientist Mark Owens, the poll’s director.

You can see the poll data here and the previous DMN/UT-Tyler poll here. That result was from late November, and it was followed by terrible Quinnipiac result a couple of weeks later. This polling outfit has been eccentric at times, and definitely wasted a lot of energy on ridiculous McConaughey hypotheticals, but it’s a data point and we haven’t had one of those in awhile. They also polled the various primaries, and I would not pay much attention to any of it. Not because of them, but because polling primaries is extremely random, especially given how few people really pay attention to them. Look at the individual race numbers yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.

The results that are of greater interest, as others have noted, are on the issues that voters say are of interest to them:

As a public policy issue for this year, should it be a higher priority to strengthen of the electricity grid or secure the Texas-Mexico border?


Strengthen The Electricity Grid 50%
Secure the Texas-Mexico border  41%
I am not concerned about either  8%

Should it be a higher priority to enforce regulations to stop the spread of the coronavirus or secure the Texas-Mexico border?


Reduce coronavirus infections   52%
Secure the Texas-Mexico border  42%
I am not concerned about either  6% 

Are you more likely or less likely to support an elected official if they supported a mask mandate during the pandemic or do you not care?


More likely     45%
Less likely     22%
Absolutely not  10%

Some school districts have mandated masks be worn in school and others have not. Should masks be required in all K-12 classrooms, allow school districts to decide, or no mandates at all?


Required                41%
Allow schools to decide 28%
No Mandate              25%

Do you support or oppose local governments requiring people to wear masks or face coverings in most public places?


Support  57%
Oppose   35%

Do you support or oppose employers requiring vaccination or weekly testing from their employees?


Support 52%
Oppose  39%

In terms of the issues, this is not a bad place for Beto to be. We’ve talked a lot about how what people say they want in polls and what they actually vote for often diverges, and this may be another example of that. But the driving factor in the polls we’ve seen before is that the numbers are the result of Dems and Republicans being polar opposites, while independents modestly favor the Dem position. Here, while Republicans all fall more on the Abbott side of things, they are fairly evenly divided on the mask questions. Indies are less passionate about most of these than the Dems, and are just barely in favor of employer vaccine mandates, but they are strongly in favor of the other things, with majority support for most. Again, maybe this doesn’t do much to move votes, but these are things Beto is talking about, and it’s way more fun to be on the majority side of questions like these.

There is one other poll we can talk about:

I can’t find anything on the UH Hobby School page, but after looking all weekend I finally found a tweet that pointed me to their polling data. As noted, Beto does better with Latinos in this sample, and the partisan numbers (91-5 for Beto among Dems, 89-3 for Abbott among Rs) make more sense to me than what DMN/UT-Tyler has (72-14 among Dems for Beto, 74-10 for Abbott among Rs). But as always, it’s one result and we shouldn’t read too much into it. They have numbers for each primary race as well – it’s the main focus of the poll – which should be taken with the same large grain of salt. I suspect we’ll start seeing more general election polling going forward.

Back to Code Red

Hopefully not for too long.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday moved the county again to its highest COVID-19 threat level, her office said.

The announcement should be old hat for Hidalgo, who has moved to Level Red each of the past three calendar years.

“Unfortunately, today we find ourselves crossing a threshold we don’t want to cross,” Hidalgo said at Booker Elementary School in Spring ISD. “We are in the midst of another COVID-10 tsunami.”

She cited an explosion of new COVID-19 cases. She expounded on the dangers of the new Omicron variant. She pointed out that virus hospitalizations are increasing at a higher rate than ever.

Twenty-one months into the pandemic, a question looms: How many people are still listening?

Schools are back in session. Restaurants, bars, theatres and sports arenas are open to capacity. There are no county- or state-wide mask rules. Moving to Level Red does not change any of that; instead, it urges unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others. The decree is not enforceable.

[…]

Hidalgo has made warning the public about COVID-19 central to her messaging since the pandemic reached Texas in March 2020. For more than a year, she and county public health officials have cajoled, implored, exhorted, implored, advised, recommended, begged and even bribed residents to get vaccinated.

Hidalgo tried to remain optimistic, reasoning that getting more residents inoculated is the way to retreat from Level Red and never return.

“We can break that habit,” Hidalgo said. “I don’t want this always to be bad news.”

Growth of the county’s rate of vaccinated residents has slowed significantly. It now stands at 59.8 percent, up just 3.3 percent since before Thanksgiving. At this rate, 70 percent county of county residents would not be vaccinated until July.

See here for the previous time the threat level was raised. It’s a fair question whether anyone is still listening. I never really stopped wearing masks for indoor things like grocery shopping and ordering at restaurants – I eat outside if at all possible – but now I’m wearing KN95s instead of cloth masks. In my observation, we’re nowhere close to the levels of mask wearing we had a year ago, and few places are doing much about it. I guess we’re going to got for a low-rent version of herd immunity, at least for the short term. Better hope that the “milder” part of this strain holds up. More here from the Chron.

Third Court of Appeals upholds Harris County mask mandate

Savor the win, for it’s off to SCOTx next.

A state appeals court on Thursday upheld a lower-court injunction that allowed Harris County to impose mask requirements despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning such mandates.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals rejected arguments by Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who claimed state law lets the governor overturn local health mandates imposed to mitigate the spread of a dangerous virus.

Abbott hasn’t budged:Texas parents pleaded for Gov. Abbott to allow mask mandates in schools

“The Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities or officials that contradict his executive orders,” said the opinion, written by Justice Chari Kelly.

The appeals court also said the disaster act does not allow, as Abbott and Paxton argued, the governor to suspend state public health laws that give local leaders the power to impose safety rules during declared emergencies.

“(The disaster act) does not give the governor carte blanche to issue executive orders empowering him to rule the state in any way he wishes during a disaster,” Kelly said in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Darlene Byrne and Justice Gisela Triana. All three justices are Democrats.

[…]

The appeal before the 3rd Court hinged on whether language in the Texas Disaster Act empowered Abbott to ban local rules enacted to protect public health.

Paxton and Abbott argued that the act:

• Designates the governor as “commander in chief” when addressing statewide disasters.

• Says local officials act as the governor’s designated agents during emergencies.

• States that executive orders issued under the act have the “force and effect of law.”

The appeals court, however, said Paxton and Abbott took the act’s provisions out of context.

The disaster law designates the governor as commander in chief of “state agencies, boards and commissions having emergency responsibilities” — not counties, Kelly wrote. In addition, nothing in the law limits the authority of county and local officials to respond to local disasters or public health crises, Kelly said.

“Even a statewide disaster may have distinct and disproportionate impacts in each of the state’s 254 counties and that, as a result, some measures for addressing a disaster in some counties may not be necessary or even appropriate in other counties,” Kelly wrote.

What’s more, she wrote, the disaster act lets the governor suspend “regulatory” laws that pertain to conducting state business. But Abbott sought to suspend a state law that lets local officials set public health rules in emergencies, and that law is not regulatory, the appeals court concluded.

“The Act empowers and recognizes that the Governor may issue statewide disaster declarations and that certain local officials may also issue local disaster declarations,” Kelly wrote.

“Nothing in the Act, however, suggests that these authorities are mutually exclusive,” she added.

As noted, the Third Court upheld a ruling issued in August by a Travis County district court. Note that there’s a second case, involving HISD and some other school districts, that was not part of this appeal. In this case, the three justices made the same points in the opinion that plenty of people, myself included, have been making all along about the Governor’s powers. Those judges are Democrats, and the judges on the Supreme Court are not, so we can’t just expect them to employ such thinking. Maybe they will, you never know, but you sure can’t assume it. For now, at least, the good guys have won. And even if SCOTx reverses this opinion, it’s still the case that Abbott and Paxton, by their own admission, don’t have the power to enforce Abbott’s no-mask mandate. Let’s not forget that.

HISD will not lift its mask mandate

Seems like an easy call at this point.

The Houston Independent School District will maintain its mask mandate and offer free COVID testing at campuses for students and staff in 2022, Superintendent Millard House II announced last week.

House previously said the district would review the mandate after the holidays. The largest public school district in the state, HISD remains one of the few school systems regionally with a mask requirement.

“In light of the surge of COVID-19 cases in Houston and the surrounding areas, HISD continues to prioritize safety, including providing additional vaccination and COVID testing opportunities,” House said in an email to parents.

The ongoing spread of the omicron variant, which has proven capable of evading some immunity from vaccines, has triggered a steep surge in cases nationwide. The average number of daily cases has more than doubled since Nov. 29, from 80,680 to 201,330, according to the New York Times COVID data tracker. The numbers are also climbing in Texas, which reported 10,600 confirmed new cases last Thursday, the highest total since Oct. 6.

HISD data only shows confirmed cases up to Dec. 17. The district reported 143 positive cases on that day, up from 22 on Dec. 10.

Starting in January 2022, the district will offer free COVID-19 PCR tests on campuses to HISD students and staff. A one-time consent is required for testing and can be filled out at the following link https://bit.ly/HISDC19Test.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of Superintendent House’s email. It was reasonable, back in November when things were looking good and Harris County was lowering its threat level to consider whether the mask mandate was still needed after the holidays. For obvious reasons, things have changed since then, and it would be more than a little unwise to take other action. If omicron burns itself out quickly, if the kid vaccination rate skyrockets, the district can consider the question again later. For now, there was no other call to make.

And by the way, isn’t it nice how HISD called Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton’s bluff on their mask mandate ban and threats to sue over HISD’s totally correct action? That has paid off in spades, and brings with it the extra zest of knowing we beat them fair and square. A whole lot more districts should have followed this path.

Our year in COVID

It was bad. How it is next year is at least partially up to us.

Speaks for itself (Source: DSHS)

Texas recorded a 35 percent increase in COVID-19 deaths in 2021, compared to the first year of the pandemic, even though vaccines have been available for all adults since March.

The climbing toll, public health experts said, is almost entirely driven by people who are unvaccinated. From mid-January through October, just 8 percent of Texas virus deaths were among inoculated residents.

Memorial Hermann Chief Physician Dr. James McCarthy said it makes sense there would be more virus deaths in 2021, the first full year of the pandemic, though the highly transmissible delta variant coupled with a low vaccination rate and the decline of safe practices made fatalities worse than they otherwise would have been. And as the ultra-contagious omicron variant spreads rapidly in Houston, the pattern could continue.

“The real reason it’s worse this year is we stopped all the mask-wearing protection activities we had with a large portion of the population still unvaccinated and vulnerable to infection, hospitalization and death,” McCarthy said.

Texas this year had recorded 42,100 virus deaths through Dec. 13, according to data from the state health department, compared to 31,309 in 2020. The pandemic was declared in March 2020.

The share of fully vaccinated Texans is 56 percent, the 29th-highest rate in the country. Its large population means Texas has more unvaccinated residents — 12.8 million — than any state except California.

Four of the six deadliest months of the pandemic in Texas were in 2021. The most populous cities and counties have had the most virus deaths.

[…]

At this pace, Texas would not reach 70 percent until late May of 2022, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention projects.

Harris County is outperforming the state average vaccine rate. Through Dec. 16, 59 percent of county residents were fully inoculated.

In other words, there’s still a lot of room for the next surge to rip through and infect, hospitalize, and kill unvaccinated people. Vaccinated people will also get sick, but they will be far less likely to get sick enough to be in danger.

We’re not going to get any help from the state government. The federal government is making more tests available and has ordered vaccine mandates, which really will do a lot to improve things, but of course our state leaders are fighting them as if they had stock in COVID itself. I don’t have anything original to say, but do go read the Department of State Health Services report that provided a lot of these numbers. And do what you need to do to protect yourself and your family.

How’s that city push to get its employees vaccinated going?

Not bad, actually.

Nearly three months after Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order requiring Houston’s 21,000 city employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, receive a medical or religious exemption, or submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks, compliance with the order varies widely among departments.

Just over 60% of Houston firefighters had either been vaccinated, submitted test results or received an exemption as of Nov. 15 — the lowest rate of any city department.

That’s according to city data released to Houston Public Media, which also revealed Houston police, waste management and health staff at the bottom of the list of those who have complied with Turner’s order.

Just 74% of police officers were in compliance with the mandate, along with 74% of Solid Waste Management employees and 74% of Health and Human Services employees.

The city secretary’s office, which has just seven employees, is 100% compliant with the mayor’s order. The legal department with 185 employees and the city I.T. department’s 180 are next on the list with about 98% compliance each as of Nov. 15.

The mayor’s own office is 90% compliant with his executive order as of Nov. 15, 13th on the list of 25 departments.

[…]

The city’s Nov. 15 compliance data was the most recent available. Houston Public Media has requested a more recent report, which was not available as of Thursday afternoon.

On Sept. 8, the date Turner issued his order, 342 city employees had active cases of COVID-19, including 129 police officers.

Fourteen city employees have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the mayor’s office.

Turner had previously mandated face coverings for all city employees in August, after Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local governments from such mandates. Abbott then banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates statewide on Oct. 11, preventing any employer from requiring vaccination. That order is still making its way through state courts, but his mandate ban could nonetheless stymie the mayor’s efforts.

But Turner’s executive order doesn’t require workers to get vaccinated. Instead, it offers unvaccinated employees two alternatives: Either submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks or file a medical or religious exemption.

Under the order, employees were required to submit test results on the first and 15th of each month, beginning on Oct. 15. Employees who don’t comply could be subject to “corrective action up to and including indefinite suspension or termination,” the order states.

“A failure to adhere to the policy will result in disciplinary action and could even cost you your job,” Turner told city council at a meeting where he announced the order.

In a statement Thursday, the mayor’s office didn’t specify how Turner plans to address employees who aren’t complying with the order, but said the city’s Human Resources department is continuing to educate employees on the requirements.

“By implementing the executive order, our goal is save more lives, prevent illness throughout city departments and reduce costs for everyone,” the mayor’s office wrote. “The City intends to enforce the Executive Order and follow the steps outlined to ensure compliance.”

See here for the background. There’s a table in the story showing compliance rates for each department, though it should be noted that the actual numbers may be higher for at least some of them. The president of the Houston Police Officers Union was quoted saying their numbers are better than what was represented, for one. Even without that, the city’s efforts have nudged the vax numbers upward, which is exactly what you want. I thought at the time that Abbott and Paxton would not stand for this workaround on the city’s part, and I’m delighted to be proven wrong. Now let’s see what enforcement there is for the holdouts. No excuses at this point, get on board or say goodbye.

HISD will keep its mask mandate

This is in response to that recent Fifth Circuit ruling about mask mandates in schools and whether Greg Abbott’s ban on them violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Houston Independent School District will keep its mask mandate in place, district officials said Thursday, despite a federal appeals court ruling halting an injunction on Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting such requirements.

“The ruling does not impact the requirement that students, staff, and visitors must wear masks while on HISD property. This mandate remains in place for HISD schools,” the district said in a statement. “While we are heartened that we have maintained the lowest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the state and vaccinations are now available for our youngest students, HISD’s mask mandate will remain in place for students, staff, and visitors in all HISD schools, buildings, and buses regardless of vaccination status.”

HISD plans to review the mandate at the end of its semester after the holidays, Superintendent Millard House II said last month.

House implemented HISD’s mandate shortly before the start of the school year and the board of trustees voted to express support for it.

The district, by and large, has avoided significant backlash from individuals opposing the mandate, outside of a handful of parents who have addressed House and trustees at board meetings and during a recent series of community forums.

The district’s statement noted that HISD and other districts sued over the governor’s order in state district court. The lawsuit, it said, is based on state law regarding the authority of Texas school districts to make health and safety decisions for their students. It remains in litigation.

See here for more on the Fifth Circuit ruling. As noted, Superintendent House did say that HISD would consider lifting its mask mandate after the holidays if conditions continue to improve; who knows what will happen now that the omicron variant is out there. The federal lawsuit really didn’t have much bearing on HISD anyway, since they were among the plaintiffs that had sued Abbott in state court over his mandate ban, and won an injunction that as far as I know is still in place; besides, Abbott and Paxton don’t have any authority to enforce it anyway. The district and the Superintendent are doing the right thing. Keep on keeping on. The Press has more.

Appeals court upholds Dallas mask mandate

There’s still mask mandate litigation going on, and Greg Abbott keeps getting his ass handed to him.

Clay Jenkins

Mask mandates will be allowed in the State of Texas. The Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas issued the ruling during the late night on November 22.

The decision is the latest chapter in the fight between Governor Greg Abbott and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins over how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jenkins had argued he had the right to issue a local mask mandate if it means protecting public health and that he had the power to do so under the Texas Disaster Act.

Abbott had asserted that he had the authority to issue a statewide order banning the mandates. His attorneys argued it was a matter of law and that the governor was given the power under the Texas Disaster Act.

On Monday, an appeals judge issued a temporary injunction against the governor’s ban saying, “…Abbott lacks legal authority to act as he attempted. Instead, by endeavoring to exercise power beyond that given to him in the Disaster Act, he attempted to infringe on Jenkins’s powers.”

[…]

After a district judge issued a temporary injunction supporting Jenkins in August, the governor’s office sought a higher ruling from the district court of appeals.

Neither the governor’s office nor the Texas Attorney General’s office have commented on the ruling, but they could choose to appeal it to the Supreme Court of Texas.

“We’ll have to see what the attorney general and the governor want to do, but I’m not tired and I will continue to stand for your public health against any other elected official,” said Jenkins.

In the meantime, Jenkins says, don’t let all the legal back and forth confuse you.

“Don’t listen to what people tell you is legal. Listen to what doctors tell you is safe,” he said.

See here for the previous entry, and here for the opinion. Note that this is a state lawsuit about what cities and counties can do, and has nothing to do with the federal lawsuit that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was meddling in. Different Fifth Courts – believe me, I know, it’s confusing.

Beyond that, not a whole lot of coverage when I went looking for stories, which I knew to do because I saw this tweet from Judge Jenkins. Maybe that’s a holiday week problem, I don’t know. As I said, there’s a ton of lawsuits out there over the Abbott executive order that banned mask mandates by cities and counties and school districts, and so far the plaintiffs have mostly won. That may all come crashing to a halt at the Supreme Court, but until then the leaders who have been bold and exercised actual leadership have been rewarded for it. Gotta enjoy those victories while you can.

Bexar mask mandate back on

Abbott and Paxton take another L.

A temporary order that allows the City of San Antonio and Bexar County to require masks in their buildings will stay in place until a lawsuit challenging an executive order goes to trial in December, the 4th Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

In another blow to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled Wednesday in Austin that the ban on mask mandates in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act — freeing local officials to again create their own rules, according to The Texas Tribune.

After San Antonio and Bexar County sued Abbott over his July executive order that prohibited local governments from issuing mask mandates, a Bexar County district judge issued a temporary injunction in August. That temporary injunction gave the city and county the ability to require masks inside city- and county-owned facilities as well as in public schools that teach pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

The 4th Court of Appeals had already upheld the temporary injunction after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the trial court’s decision and argued that his appeal automatically blocked the city and county’s mask mandate. That decision made in August was temporary until the appellate court could take up the matter and issue a more final decision, which occurred Wednesday, said Larry Roberson, civil division chief of the Bexar County District Attorney’s office.

“This is the opinion on the temporary injunction,” he said. “The earlier issues were just procedural.”

The city and county argued that the governor’s executive order exceeded his scope of authority by blocking local governments from creating public health prevention measures. They also argued that by not having the ability to enforce their own public health measures, coronavirus transmission would be more widespread without masks and cause irreparable harm.

Their arguments were enough to validate the need for a temporary injunction, three judges on the 4th Court of Appeals found.

“We conclude that the City and County have pled sufficient facts to establish that their injuries are ‘likely to be redressed by the requested relief,’” Chief Justice Rebeca C. Martinez wrote in the appellate court’s opinion issued Wednesday.

See here for the previous update and here for the court’s opinion. I will note that this is still a temporary restraining order and that the merits of the case will be heard at trial on December 13. That said, I will also note these sentences from the opinion, which addresses the question of whether Abbott had the power to forbid local governments from issuing mask mandates with the emergency powers granted to him under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975:

We hold Section 418.016(a) does not provide the Governor with the authority he claims to suspend statutes that concern local control over public health matters or to prohibit local restrictions on face coverings.

[…]

Applying the plain language of the Act, we conclude the City and County demonstrated a probable right to relief that the Governor’s power to suspend laws, orders, and rules under section 418.016(a) does not include the power to prohibit face-covering mandates that local governments may adopt to respond to public-health conditions or the power to suspend public-health statutes authorizing local governments to act for the benefit of public health.

[…]

Because the Governor possesses no inherent authority to suspend statutes under the Texas Constitution and he exceeded the scope of statutory authority granted to him by the Legislature, his actions in issuing Executive Order GA-38 were done without authority.

In between is a bunch of technical legal stuff that will make your eyes glaze over, but the bottom line is that this directly addresses the claim that the Governor’s emergency powers allow for him to suspend local orders that are intended to mitigate the disaster in question, an authority that would seem to contradict the whole purpose of a “Disaster Act”. We’ve discussed that several times here, and while that question will surely come up again in the trial court hearing and later on appeal, it’s good to see this basic idea affirmed here by the appellate court. May such common sense continue to prevail as this moves on to the trial stage. The Current has more.

People still support mask mandates

One more tidbit from the UT/Trib poll for October.

A majority of Texas voters support requiring masks at schools and indoor public places and allowing businesses to require their employees to be vaccinated, according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.

This comes as Gov. Greg Abbott has banned vaccine requirements by all Texas entities, including private businesses and health care facilities, and mask mandates by local government and state agencies.

A survey of 1,200 registered voters in Texas showed that 57% of voters support mask requirements in indoor public spaces based on local conditions, while 58% support mask requirements for students and staff in public schools. Forty percent oppose the requirements at indoor public places and 39% oppose the requirements at schools.

Fifty-four percent of Texas voters also support allowing businesses to require employees to provide proof of vaccination or submit to frequent COVID-19 tests, compared to 43% who are opposed. Meanwhile, a slight plurality is opposed to the same requirements for customers: 47% support them, while 49% are against.

Similarly, 54% of voters support and 43% oppose allowing public schools to require staff to either provide proof of vaccination or submit to frequent testing. Texas voters are nearly split on requiring students to adhere to the same measures: 49% oppose the idea and 48% support it.

Texans also leaned in favor of requiring vaccinations for admission to large events or activities, with polls showing that 47% of voters favor the vaccine passports while 43% oppose them.

Voters were fairly evenly split on whether they supported allowing government entities to require vaccines or COVID-19 tests for employees. Just 50% supported the requirements while 46% opposed.

Overall, there is a wide partisan divide on the issue of mandates. While Democrats surveyed overwhelmingly support them, there is still significant opposition among Republicans.

“As a whole, the state looks more in favor of mitigation efforts than the policy, but amongst the majority party there’s really not much appetite for many of these mitigation efforts,” said Joshua Blank, research director at the Texas Politics Project.

That’s true, and it’s what I’d expect as that has been the general pattern on all things that have been politicized these days, but with a caveat. If you look at the bar charts they included to show the partisan breakdown for some of these questions, Democrats are more in favor than Republicans are opposed, and in general independents are in favor, though by modest margins. For example, on the question of whether businesses should be allowed to mandate vaccines for their employees, Democrats favor it by an 89-9 margin, independents favor it by 53-41, and Republicans oppose it by 72-26. That’s more than enough to give it a fairly solid majority overall.

You can see a few more examples in the story, some of which are closer calls, and you can see all of the crosstabs here. They hadn’t included that in previous poll stories, probably because they wanted to publish them all before they spoiled them by showing the data ahead of time. I’ve got another post in the works based on a couple of interesting bits I saw in there, but for now the takeaway is that a campaign that is harshly critical of Abbott and Paxton for their unrelenting obstruction on masking and vaccination will find some purchase. If nothing else, it will fire up the base, and for sure we’re going to need all of that we can get.

NAACP tells athletes to steer clear of Texas

At least someone is willing to take a stand.

The NAACP is urging professional athletes who are free agents to boycott Texas over recent restrictive voting and abortion laws as well as policies stopping local governments from enacting coronavirus containment measures, all of which the civil rights organization says “isn’t safe for anyone.”

“From abortion to voting rights and mask mandates, Texas has become a blueprint by legislators to violate constitutional rights for all, especially for women, children and marginalized communities,” wrote NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson in a letter to all major players’ associations.

The letter specifically called out the GOP elections bill that Gov. Greg Abbott signed last month; the virtual ban on abortions Abbott signed in May that’s being challenged at the U.S. Supreme Court; and Abbott’s executive orders blocking school districts from enforcing mask mandates.

“Texas lawmakers have destroyed the state’s moral compass by passing these laws. In return, we are asking that you seek employment with sports teams located in states that will protect, honor and serve your families with integrity,” Johnson wrote in the letter to the NFL, NBA, WNBA, MLB and NHL Players’ Associations.

You can see the letter here. On the one hand, we’re going to need as many people who oppose these things as we can get if we want to be able to vote these bastards out, and anyone who might heed this warning would presumably be on our side for that. On the other hand, people have to do what’s best for themselves and their families. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to have to deal with this crap when they have other, better choices available to them. So thank you to the NAACP for calling attention to these issues. I’m still waiting for the NCAA to do its part.

SCOTx puts San Antonio ISD’s vaccine mandate on pause

Ken Paxton finally gets what he wants.

The Texas Supreme Court temporarily halted San Antonio Independent School District’s staff vaccine mandate on Thursday, a day before the deadline for all employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The ruling comes two weeks after a Bexar County judge denied the state’s request for a temporary injunction to stop the staff vaccine mandate. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office appealed that decision to the 4th Court of Appeals and also requested the court temporarily block the mandate while it considers Paxton’s appeal.

The 4th Court of Appeals denied the attorney general’s request to temporarily block the vaccine mandate. Paxton then requested the Texas Supreme Court step in and halt the mandate, which it did Thursday while stating the court’s decision is not a reflection “on the merits of the state’s claims.” The appeals court still has to rule on the state’s appeal of the temporary injunction that was denied by the Bexar County judge on Oct. 1.

[…]

While the Supreme Court’s ruling means SAISD must pause its vaccine mandate, the district said in a statement that it will continue to work with health care providers to offer vaccines to any employees, students, and families who want them.

“This is especially important as we anticipate the availability of the Pfizer vaccine for 5-11-year-old children in the next month. We remain committed to believing it’s the right thing to do,” the district said in the statement. “We are extremely proud of our efforts in providing abundant access to this life-saving protocol to all of our employees and the broader SAISD community. Based on the science, we continue to feel strongly that these vaccines help us keep our staff and students as healthy as possible and in the classroom, where learning happens best, and in giving our families stability.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Next up would be a hearing in district court on the merits of the state’s request for an injunction, followed by another round of appeals. The hope remains that in this time, whether the mandate is allowed to be enforced or not, some number of SAISD employees get vaccinated who wouldn’t have done so otherwise. If that happens, it was all worth it. The Trib has more.

The Constitutional amendments

Hey, remember how in odd numbered years there are some number of constitutional amendments to vote on in November? This is the one thing that guarantees you have a reason to turn out regardless of what your city or school district is doing. Reform Austin runs down this year’s tableau. I’m going to zoom in on two of them, one of which I think is good and one of which I think is bad.

Proposition 3 (SJR 27)

What it says: “The constitutional amendment to prohibit this state or a political subdivision of this state from prohibiting or limiting religious services of religious organizations.”

What it means:  Proposition 3 would amend Article 1 of the Texas constitution by adding a new section to prohibit the state or any political subdivision from enacting a law, rule, order, or proclamation that limits religious services or organizations. Arguments against this amendment cite COVID as one valid reason to suspend religious services, approving this proposition would prevent authorities from banning this type of events even during a worldwide pandemic.

Proposition 4 (SJR 47)

What it says: The constitutional amendment changing the eligibility requirements for a justice of the supreme court, a judge of the court of criminal appeals, a justice of a court of appeals, and a district judge.”

What it means: The amendment would change the eligibility requirements for the following judicial offices: a justice of the supreme court, a judge of the court of criminal appeals, a justice of a court of appeals, and a district judge.

New requirements would include:

  • Candidates should be residents of Texas as well as citizens of the United States;
  • Candidates should have 10 years of experience in Texas as a practicing lawyer or judge of a state or county court for candidates of the supreme court, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, or a court of appeals;
  • Candidates should have  8 years of experience in Texas as a practicing lawyer or judge of a state or county court for candidates of a district court;
  • It would disqualify candidates if their license to practice law was revoked or suspended during experience requirement; and
  • These requirements would be applied to individuals elected or appointed to a term beginning after January 1, 2025.

You can probably guess which one I think is which, but just so we’re clear I’ll be voting for Prop 4 and against Prop 3. I suppose given the recent shadow docket rulings from SCOTUS about local restrictions on religious services during COVID that Prop 3 isn’t actually doing anything that isn’t already the law, but it’s still a bad idea and I refuse to put it in our overstuffed Constitution.

Beyond that, none of the remaining bunch looks all that bad to me. Progress Texas endorses all but Prop 3 endorses five of the eight, opposing 3, 4, and 5. I noted during the session that the one thing missing this time around was an ugly fight over a nasty amendment – on that front at least, it was pretty boring – and you can see why. What do you think about these proposals?

UPDATE: The Trib has more.

UPDATE: I swear, when I looked at the Progress Texas page, I saw Yes for Props 4 and 5. Either I just misread it or they had an error. I actually think those props are OK, though I understand the objections. I’ll have to think about it some more.

Endorsement watch: Vote No on Prop 3

Yes, there are Constitutional amendments on the ballot this fall. Most of them are pretty innocuous, but one of them is not, and you should vote No on it.

Proposition 3, on this year’s ballot, would enact a constitutional amendment barring any Texas jurisdiction from adopting any limits on religious services. The Texas Freedom to Worship Act, passed this year in the regular legislative session, after lawmakers, including all but three senators and all Republicans in the House and nearly half its Democrats, voted to forbid government officials from requiring churches to cancel or limit services when disaster strikes.

The idea was a bad one as a statute, and even worse as an amendment to the Texas Constitution, which would mean not even lawmakers could act to limit public worship in the face of a health emergency.

It could have severe “unintended consequences,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones told us.

If state or local officials needed to close a church even temporarily due to fire damage or a nearby chemical spill, the congregation could simply refuse.

The amendment is also unnecessary. For decades, courts have recognized religious freedom, especially when it comes to freedom to worship as one chooses, as one of the U.S. Constitution’s most powerful protections. The Supreme Court ruled in November, for instance, that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order limiting congregations to 10 or 25 worshippers in areas of New York City with high infection rates violated the First Amendment. As of April, the high court had ruled five consecutive times that California’s pandemic-related limits on religious services were illegal.

But even so, the court has never gone so far as saying that no state interests can ever justify limiting religious services in public. Some dangers are just too large, and restrictions sufficiently reasonable, for such a blanket approach to make sense. Many faith leaders agree, and spoke out last spring against the legislation.

I’ve got a longer look at the Constitutional amendments here, and this one just stands out as being a Bad Idea. (No, I don’t know why it attracted so much Democratic support. Ask your Rep and your Senator how they voted on this and why.) I expect this will pass – these things usually do – but that doesn’t mean you should help it. The Chron doesn’t address the other seven propositions, all of which I’m fine with, in this piece. They may do so later, but if not take a look at my other post and see the links there for more guidance.

El Paso mask mandate blocked

This is a city mask mandate. It does not affect the El Paso ISD mask mandate.

El Paso’s mandate requiring masks in indoor spaces, including schools, was ended on Thursday by the 8th Court of Appeals. The ruling does not apply to the El Paso Independent School District, which is involved in a separate court case.

The appeals court said the city’s mask mandate had to be lifted while it hears an appeal by the Texas Attorney General’s Office of a lower court ruling upholding the mandate. The ruling was based on Texas Supreme Court orders on similar mask mandates in San Antonio and Bexar County, the city said in a news release.

The mask mandate by Dr. Hector Ocaranza, the El Paso health authority, has been in effect since Aug. 17. The city’s rate of newly reported COVID-19 cases has declined in that time.

[…]

Despite Thursday’s ruling, the county’s largest district can continue to require students, teachers and staff to wear masks because it is part of a multiple school district lawsuit challenging Abbott’s executive order.

The El Paso ISD Board of Trustees voted on Aug. 17 to join a suit join a suit La Joya ISD and five other districts filed against Abbott days earlier in Travis County. The lawsuit now includes nearly two dozen districts, including a community college. EPISD was the only El Paso area district to join.

A Travis County judge granted the parties a temporary injunction against Abbott, allowing the districts to continue requiring masks. The governor is contesting that ruling with the 8th Court of Appeals. State and the districts’ attorneys are still submitting briefs before the court makes a final ruling in the case.

See here for some background. As noted, El Paso has been doing all right with the Delta outbreak. One has to assume that the mask mandate has helped with that. Hopefully the lifting of it now doesn’t set them back too far.

More on the San Antonio ISD vaccination mandate litigation

I’m a little confused at this point, but I’ll cope.

Judge Mary Lou Alvarez of the 45th District Court denied the state of Texas’ request for a temporary injunction Friday, allowing the San Antonio Independent School District to continue requiring its employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Former SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who has since left the district to take a job in Chicago, issued the vaccine mandate on Aug. 16, requiring all staff members to be vaccinated by Oct. 15. SAISD board President Christina Martinez said Thursday that about 90% of SAISD staff has been vaccinated.

Alvarez’s decision came after a hearing on the state’s request for temporary relief against the vaccine mandate was delayed. Another state district judge denied the school district’s challenge on Sept. 23 that the state and Gov. Greg Abbott did not have jurisdiction to sue. SAISD then appealed that ruling, pushing back the original hearing for the state’s lawsuit; the appeal was dropped earlier this week.

After Alvarez’s ruling, the state’s legal team said they planned to appeal. A trial for the lawsuit is set for Jan. 19, 2022.

[…]

Attorney Steve Chiscano, who represented SAISD, dismissed the state’s lawsuit as a political ploy.

“We are sitting in an injunction hearing that the AG is hoping to win so he can spin off another press release on how proud he is that he beat up on this district,” Chiscano said. “It is so obvious and so clear that this is happening that I believe at the end of the day, you’ll see that what the governor is doing is not supported by any law.”

See here and here for the background. I’ve decided that we had a motion by SAISD to dismiss the lawsuit, which was denied, and then the state asked for a temporary restraining order against SAISD, which was also denied. The source of my initial confusion was the change in judges between the two, but I think that may just be how Bexar County rolls. In any event, true to form and as the story notes, Paxton – who was not present for the hearing – did indeed tweet about it and how he’s fighting for the freedom of people who want to get sick and die and take others with them. Ultimately, this judge did not buy the state’s argument that the Abbott executive order was enough on its own to prevent SAISD from responding to the pandemic in this fashion. A higher court may intervene before the hearing for an injunction, but in the meantime I sure hope that SAISD is making progress in getting shots into arms. That is what really matters. The Current has more.

COVID continues to run amuck at the schools

This is our reality.

Students in Texas public schools are facing another year upturned by COVID-19 as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, mask mandates are inconsistent and children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated against the virus.

Less than two months into this school year, the number of reported coronavirus cases among students has surpassed the total from the entire 2020-21 school year. Schools are prohibited from taking precautions such as requiring masks, though some are fighting the governor’s order banning mask mandates. Far more students are on campus, since most districts do not have a remote learning option.

[…]

State data on school cases is incomplete and likely an undercount. TEA suppresses some districts’ case counts to protect student privacy, and not all districts report student and staff cases to the state, despite agency guidance requiring otherwise. The agency also retroactively updates its data from previous weeks as more districts report cases.

Some large districts, such as Houston and Dallas, have not consistently reported cases to the state since TEA started tracking COVID-19 data on Aug. 2 for this school year. Many districts publish a COVID-19 dashboard that shows cases, and TEA recommends families check for the latest data there.

Entire districts, including Angleton and Lumberton, have closed temporarily without reporting cases to the state. These districts don’t necessarily report their closures, either, since they are not required to do so. TEA informally tracks closures based on media and district reports, said Frank Ward, an agency spokesperson.

I don’t quite understand the embedded table that this story has about school districts with the most reported COVID cases, as the numbers they report for HISD don’t match up with the ones on the HISD site. I guess they’re showing active cases and not cumulative ones, but it doesn’t sound like that from their description. In any event, the point is there’s a lot of COVID in the schools, and the schools have few options right now to mitigate it other than defying Greg Abbott’s mask mandate ban and hoping for the best in the courts. The forthcoming EUA for the Pfizer shot for kids will help eventually, though that will take time as even pro-vaxx parents may wait a bit before giving it to their kids.. And that is our reality.

SAISD vaccine mandate update

Still in place for now, but clearly on shaky ground.

Best mugshot ever

San Antonio Independent School District can continue requiring its staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19, despite a judge ruling against the district Thursday in a case filed by the Texas attorney general.

Judge Angelica Jimenez of the 408th District Court denied SAISD’s plea on Thursday that state Attorney General Ken Paxton lacks the legal authority to enforce Gov. Greg Abbott’s Aug. 25 executive order, which banned public entities, such as school districts, from mandating COVID-19 vaccines. Steve Chiscano, the attorney representing SAISD, immediately appealed the ruling.

Appealing Jimenez’s jurisdiction ruling delayed a hearing requested by the state to stop SAISD’s vaccine mandate with a temporary restraining order. The school district and attorney general’s office will make their arguments again before the 4th Court of Appeals. Case information is due at the court Oct. 4, according to online court records. The lawyers will file briefs, and justices will make a decision at an undetermined date.

[…]

In a statement, the district said Jimenez’s ruling does not enforce Abbott’s executive order prohibiting vaccine mandates and that SAISD would continue its vaccine protocols.

“We do not believe the Governor and Attorney General have the legal authority to continue this lawsuit, and we respectfully disagree with the judge’s ruling,” the district said in the statement. “We know that following the executive order and not requiring vaccination of our employees is potentially deadly, and we will do what is necessary to protect the children and staff of the district.”

See here for the previous update. I’ve always thought that the vaccine mandate was a heavier lift than the mask mandates, so I won’t be surprised if Paxton eventually wins this one. But as long as that mandate remains in place, SAISD can move closer to a goal of maximizing the number of its employees who have been vaccinated. No matter the odds, that’s worth fighting for.

Feds officially investigating Texas mask mandate ban

Good.

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday launched a civil rights investigation into Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in schools, making Texas the sixth state to face a federal inquiry over mask rules.

The investigation will focus on whether Abbott’s order prevents students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of federal law, Suzanne B. Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights wrote in a letter to Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath.

The investigation comes after the Texas Education Agency released guidance saying public school systems cannot require students or staff to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in light of Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

[…]

Goldberg wrote that the Office for Civil Rights will examine whether TEA “may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the individual educational needs of students with disabilities or otherwise enabling discrimination based on disability.”

The department previously opened similar investigations into mask policies in Iowa, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma and Tennessee. But the agency had not done so in Texas because of court orders preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s order. The new TEA guidance changed that, however.

See here and here for the background. The TEA’s new directive made me scratch my head.

In newly released guidance, the Texas Education Agency says public school systems cannot require students or staff to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A statement released by the agency Friday says Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order banning mask mandates precludes districts from requiring face coverings.

“Per GA-38, school systems cannot require students or staff to wear a mask. GA-38 addresses government-mandated face coverings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement reads. “Other authority to require protective equipment, including masks, in an employment setting is not necessarily affected by GA-38.”

The agency previously had said it would not enforce the governor’s ban until the issue was resolved in the courts.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued several school districts for imposing mask requirements on students and teachers, and some districts have sued the state over the governor’s order. The lawsuits have produced mixed results with some courts upholding districts’ mask mandates and some siding with the attorney general.

TEA officials on Tuesday did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the new guidelines and questions about how the agency would enforce the ban on mask mandates. The agency has not yet clarified what prompted the new guidelines, given that the legal battles regarding the order are ongoing.

Hard to know exactly what motivated this, but “pressure from Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton” would be high on my list of suspects. If I were to advise school districts that currently have mask mandates, as HISD does, or are thinking about imposing one, I would say go right ahead, and keep the mandates you have. This is a toothless threat, and the courts have not yet weighed in on the issue in a meaningful way. We know that having the mask mandates promotes safety, and if that isn’t the highest priority I don’t know what is. Do not waver.

Anyway. The Trib has an explainer about the state of mask mandates and lawsuits around them, but it doesn’t indicate when the legal cases may be having hearings, which admittedly would be a big task to track. The federal lawsuit will have a hearing on October 6, and we may get some clarity out of that. In the meantime, keep the mask mandates. We need them, and (a couple of district court judges aside) no one is stopping school districts from having them. The Trib has more.

El Paso is doing all right with Delta

Good for them, let’s hope it lasts.

While some other metro areas like Austin reported record high numbers of COVID-19 patients in their area hospitals just last month, and while statewide hospitalizations came close to eclipsing the January peak of 14,218, El Paso-area hospitals, which serve nearly a million West Texas residents, haven’t come close to their previous highs.

El Paso’s peak for COVID-19 hospitalizations was just over 1,100 in mid-November, said Wanda Helgesen, director of BorderRAC, the state’s regional advisory council for local hospitals.

On Thursday, the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in El Paso was 127.

In fact, the city’s daily hospitalization numbers haven’t broken 200 since March, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Hospitals are seeing an increase in patients, have occasionally seen their ICUs fill up and are having the same staffing problems as the rest of the state, she said, but have so far been able to handle the uptick.

Most of the pressure is related to non-COVID patients, many of whom had been waiting to get treatment for other problems, she said.

“We do have a surge of patients but not to the extent that other parts of Texas are having,” she said.

Helgesen and others say much of the credit can be attributed to the area’s high vaccination rate, widespread compliance with masking and social distancing, and a strong partnership among local community and health care leaders.

“It is amazing,” Helgesen said. “It is absolutely a credit to our community. I really think it was an all-out effort.”

The share of COVID-19 tests in El Paso that come back positive is hovering around 6%, while the statewide positivity rate is three times that at 18%.

And while COVID-19 patients, most of whom are unvaccinated, took up more than 30% of hospital capacity in some areas and more than 20% statewide last week, in El Paso they accounted for only 7% of patients in local hospitals.

For a city with one of the state’s highest per-capita COVID-19 death counts, the numbers present a rare glimmer of good news for the traumatized residents of this West Texas border city.

“Compared to the rest of Texas, we’re in heaven,” said Gabriel Ibarra-Mejia, assistant professor of public health at the University of Texas-El Paso. “That doesn’t mean we are free from COVID, but we’re doing much, much better than most of the rest of the state. The numbers don’t lie.”

Civic and health leaders say they aren’t ignoring one important fact: El Paso’s surges have been weeks behind the rest of the state throughout the pandemic, so it’s possible that the region’s own delta-fueled spike could still be ahead.

“We aren’t letting our guard down,” Helgesen said.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser, who lost his mother and brother to COVID during the winter surge, said the reason the city and county have enacted recent mask mandates, in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on them and in spite of lower numbers, is because the potential for another surge is still real.

“We do worry and we want to make sure that we don’t have any spikes,” he said. “You always want to be proactive and you always want to be prepared.”

The story goes on to recount the huge spike in COVID cases that El Paso experienced last November, which put it in the national news. If you look at the included chart of COVID cases, which tracks El Paso and the state as a whole, the two were mostly in sync except for that giant surge in November, which came between the two big statewide surges, and now, when the statewide rate began to take off in May but El Paso’s stayed more or less where it had been. I’m sure the mask mandate and above-norm vaccination rates have helped with that, but it may also be that enough unvaccinated El Pasoans have had COVID that the overall rate of immunity is high enough to be something like herd immunity. Or maybe they’re just lucky right now, and the curve will begin to turn upward for them eventually. I very much hope that’s not the case, but I think we all know that this pandemic has been persistent and somewhat random about who gets it the worst at a given time. In the meantime, though, keep on keeping on, El Paso.

Galveston ISD mask mandate remains, Round Rock gets halted

Good.

A Galveston County judge Thursday denied an attempt by Attorney General Ken Paxton to stop Galveston ISD from requiring masks, according to a court document.

Judge Kerry Neves ruled against Texas’ request for a temporary restraining order on mask mandates in the district.

According to court documents, a hearing on the matter is set for Sept. 28.

See here for the background. That’s the whole Chron story – the Galveston County News covered this as well, but they’re behind a paywall so I can’t see it. Paxton scored an initial win against Paris ISD in his second round of lawsuits, though that happened without Paris ISD being in the courtroom. It would seem he used that same tactic in Round Rock.

A state district judge in Williamson County has temporarily blocked the Round Rock school district from enforcing its mask mandate, according to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who sued the school district.

In a tweet Thursday night, Paxton’s office declared “Another WIN!” in its legal fight against school districts that have defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders banning schools from requiring masks. Paxton sued Round Rock along with Elgin and other school districts with mask mandates last Friday.

[…]

In a statement, Round Rock school district leaders said they had not been officially served or notified by Paxton’s office of the order. District officials also said they were not given the opportunity attend any court proceedings to oppose the order, but they said they would “comply with any lawfully issued court order.”

“We will also use all proper and available legal proceedings to challenge this order and vigorously defend its long-established lawful authority to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for Round Rock ISD students and staff, including during this pandemic,” the statement said. “The district continues to strongly encourage and recommend the use of masks in accordance with guidance from our local health authorities.”

I totally get Paxton playing dirty, but what is up with these judges letting it happen? Do they have no responsibility to at least inquire why there’s no opposing counsel? I’m puzzled, to say the least.

As for the other affected districts, I did a quick Google News search and didn’t see any news for them. I would assume there will be more rulings in the coming days, but for now as far as I can tell this is where we are.

Paxton sues more school districts

Another rampage by the morally bankrupt felon in the AG’s office.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has unleashed another wave of lawsuits against school districts over their masking policies — but one of them says it doesn’t even require face coverings.

Midway Independent School District is a Waco-area district that sits on a list compiled by the attorney general’s office of school districts and counties that have flouted Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban and put in place their own mask-wearing orders.

The hitch? Midway ISD doesn’t mandate that students, teachers, school staff or visitors don masks while on school premises, a district spokesperson said Wednesday. Midway officials have tried to convince the attorney general’s office the district doesn’t have a mandate — but to no avail.

“We have not received information of why or how we are considered out of compliance or considered for a lawsuit,” district spokesperson Traci Marlin said in an email.

The Midway school district is among nine that Paxton announced on Tuesday that he is suing for allegedly defying Abbott’s executive order banning public schools and local governments from enacting local mask mandates.

Under Midway’s virus protocol, campuses can issue 10-day “mask directives” that encourage mask-wearing on the premises if virus transmission reaches a certain level — but doesn’t require it. The attorney general’s office pointed to that protocol as the basis of its lawsuit against the district but declined to answer other questions from The Texas Tribune.

Those directives are not the same as mandates, Marlin said — and in one case, such a directive successfully cut down the number of active cases on a campus.

“Directives are not enforced,” she said. “There are no punishments or repercussions.”

McGregor Independent School District, another district near Waco, did require mask-wearing if virus transmission became too severe but, at Paxton’s request, did not enforce the mandate, Superintendent James Lenamon said in a statement.

Nonetheless, Paxton sued the district.

“The district is disappointed that the AG has decided to sue anyway,” Lenamon said.

[…]

In addition to McGregor and Midway, Paxton announced lawsuits against seven other districts Tuesday: Diboll, Honey Grove, La Vega, Longview, Lufkin, Paris and Waco school districts.

See here for the previous story. The fact that neither Ken Paxton nor Greg Abbott has the power to enforce the mask mandate ban isn’t stopping him. Given that, we should not be surprised that he isn’t particularly concerned about the details in these districts. This is all about throwing his weight around. And by the way, for anyone who might have thought that P Bush or Eva Guzman would present a more moderate, less “burn the witch!” alternative to Paxton in the Republican primary, I’m not seeing any statements from them in which they question the wisdom of this effort. I’m just saying. (There is one candidate who has spoken about it.)

Ironically, the one win Paxton has chalked up so far has come against the one school district that appeared to have found a silver bullet.

Paris schools announced Tuesday they are no longer requiring masks on campus. This comes a month after the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent the district a cease and desist letter telling them to stop requiring masks. Paxton listed Paris ISD, the school board and the superintendent in a lawsuit over the same mandate.

According to a temporary restraining order signed by a Lamar County district judge Monday, Paris Independent School District is no longer able to enforce their mask mandate and, they backed down. But despite the order Paris ISD says they will continue to strongly encourage everyone on campus to wear one.

“It was a rather cowardly act on the Attorney Generals office’s part,” said General Counsel for the district, Dennis Eichelbaum.

[…]

In August, the district included masks as a part of their dress code citing Chapter 11 of Texas Education Code, which states the school board has the right to set the dress code.

“There’s absolutely no reason why if we want to have a dress code, there’s no justification for the government office without having suspended the laws that give us the authority to run the district, to allow us to do our job,” said Eichelbaum.

According to court documents, a district judge signed a temporary restraining order against the district on Monday making it against the law for them to require masks on campus.

“We are still encouraging everyone to wear masks even if it’s not mandated, Paris ISD has seen a significant drop compared to other communities in the area with regard to children being sent home for COVID-19. we believe there’s a connection with the mask mandate., and we encourage everyone to continue to wear a mask to keep everyone safe,” Eichelbaum said. “We’re now set for a hearing next week in district court, and at that time, we will be defending our board policy which permits mask mandates.”

Eichelbaum says they will be defending the district’s right to enforce safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A hearing is set for Tuesday, September 21. This will determine whether the temporary restraining order will be overturned.

See here and here for the background. You got a raw deal, Paris. I’m rooting for you at the hearing. KVUE has more.

UPDATE: Wait, this detail wasn’t in that last story for some reason.

Dennis Eichelbaum, lawyer for Paris ISD, said Paxton’s office — despite the fact Paxton had sent multiple letters threatening lawsuits beforehand — didn’t notify the district of the lawsuit until after the hearing was over, and the restraining order had been granted. Paris ISD didn’t get to make its case against the restraining order as a result, Eichelbaum said, describing it as “a cowardly move” from Paxton.

“First, it’s against the rules of civil procedure. So he doesn’t care about the law when it applies to him,” Eichelbaum said. “He’s very brave to go to court when you’re not there to defend yourselves.”

“A lot of times attorneys will get sanctioned for it if they do something like this,” he added, saying he will ask the district’s trustees if they want to pursue the matter with the judge.

Emphasis mine, and wow. What a sniveling coward Ken Paxton is. Please, please, pursue this matter with the judge.