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Texas AG says Bexar County can't impose penalty for not wearing mask

Ken Paxton contended that local leaders are superseding state orders. Metro officials insist they aren't.

SAN ANTONIO — Bexar County officials can't require people to wear masks or stay at home, according to a letter sent Tuesday by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. 

The letter says local orders cannot conflict with Gov. Greg Abbott's executive orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Similar letters were sent to officials in Dallas and Travis counties. 

There are five areas in which the county's order conflicts with Abbott's order, according to the letter. 

Those are:

  • limitations to church services
  • limits on reopened businesses
  • ordering people to wear masks 
  • requiring residents to shelter-in-place
  • criminal penalty for violations

Though the governor has repeatedly encouraged people to wear masks, his executive order does not require people to do so when they go out. During a news conference announcing steps for Texas businesses to reopen, he said local governments can't penalize people for not wearing masks.

He also said the Bexar County order cannot require businesses to provide masks to employees.

"Instead, the governor's order recognizes that Texans will act responsibly and make smart decisions to protect themselves and their families," the letter from Paxton says. "In contrast, your order purports to strip Texans of their agency." 

The letter also states that local governments can't restrict essential or reopened businesses more strictly than the governor's order does. And, the letter from Paxton says Bexar County cannot limit the number of people at worship services.

When it comes to enforcement, Paxton said that confinement is no longer permitted as a punishment for violating the order. He also said that the maximum civil penalty for violating a local emergency order is $1,000, so the city's fine of $2,000 is unenforceable.

The letter requested that Judge Wolff and Mayor Nirenberg make changes in these areas.

"We trust you will act quickly to correct these mistakes to avoid further confusion and litigation challenging these unconstitutional and unlawful restrictions," the letter said.

Paxton's letter was met with some surprise and confusion by local leaders during a daily briefing Tuesday evening. County Judge Nelson Wolff called the letter a "very dissapointing" development, while Mayor Ron Nirenberg made it a point to emphasize that local orders have been consistent with the state's mandates. 

"The fact is our orders have been in compliance with the governor's since Day 1," Nirenberg said. 

City Attorney Andy Segovia appeared alongside Nirenberg and Wolff to go through each point in Paxton's letter one by one, saying that "despite the hyperbole," the metro's mandates have been in line with that of the governor's. 

Among other things, Segovia said San Antonio hasn’t limited the amount of people who can attend worship services, nor has the city strayed from the state’s guidance on what defines an essential business. He also contended that the local and state orders echo each other when it comes to asking residents to stay at home if not going to an essential/reopened business.  

Nirenberg called Paxton's letter a politically motivated maneuver. 

"Our conflict has never been with the governor," he said. "Our conflict is with the political interpretations of the orders from the attorney general's office."

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