SAN ANTONIO — The first days of August have brought shifts in the mask-mandate landscape as the Delta variant continues to prolong the coronavirus pandemic and Centers for Disease Control officials update their guidance to recommend face coverings for everyone in regions of high virus transmission.
Leaders in multiple Texas cities have responded with new orders of their own, several weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott fully lifted mask mandates as the summer was getting underway.
In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced via a memo to city employees that they would be required to wear a mask starting Wednesday, unless alone in their work areas and six feet apart from others. And in north Texas, an administrative judge said anyone entering Dallas County courtrooms would have to have a face covering.
So are Houston and Dallas County operating within state orders?
Technically, Turner is violating Abbott's most recent executive order, announced last week, by requiring employees to wear masks. Abbott's order asserts face coverings are a personal responsibility at this point, and that "no governmental official may require any person to wear a face covering," save for government-operated hospitals and "state-supporting living centers."
Dallas County is operating in more of a gray area. The administrative judge there cited a Texas Supreme Court ruling allowing judicial officials extra leeway to "take reasonable actions" to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
So what about San Antonio?
As of Tuesday afternoon, masks are not mandated in public spaces, city facilities or schools in the Alamo City. But local authorities have continued to strongly encourage their use, especially for those not yet vaccinated.
Are masks required anywhere in the San Antonio area?
As of Tuesday, yes. Leaders at Joint Base San Antonio last week announced they were imposing a mask mandate "regardless of vaccination status," and it pertains to everyone from visitors to military personnel to staff.
Private entities and businesses can still mandate the use of masks if they so choose. Some popular local attractions are currently operating under requiring masks in certain situation. At SeaWorld they're required for all guests indoors, while at Six Flags Fiesta Texas they are only recommended for unvaccinated visitors.
Why haven't San Antonio-area leaders implemented a mask order of their own?
As Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff have put it, their hands are tied as far as what can be required under Abbott's order, which supersedes all local mandates.
Speaking of Texas's biggest cities, has Austin implemented any mandate?
Not in Austin or Travis County proper. But over in neighboring Williamson County, anyone entering the Williamson County Justice Center is required to have a mask. As with Dallas County, judicial officials there are citing the Texas Supreme Court's order pertaining to judicial authority in the pandemic.
Has there been any indication that San Antonio leaders even would make masks mandatory if they could?
Yes. Both Nirenberg and Wolff have been vocal about prioritizing collective health and safety while aligning their pandemic-era protocols with the recommendations of Metro Health. And last week the mayor blasted Abbott's newest order, saying it shows "a callous disregard for life and safety" in the wake of the CDC's updated recommendations.
Plus, back in the summer of 2020, Wolff skirted the limits of Texas's then-order by putting the onus on businesses to require social distancing and face coverings when social distancing isn't feasible. It essentially was taking advantage of a loophole that Abbott's most current orders don't allow for.
And as recently as the end of July, both Nirenberg and Wolff sent a letter to Abbott asking him to re-consider his order so that face-mask use can be mandated among government employees, as well as in schools.
What penalties do Nirenberg and Wolff face if they do decide to defy Abbott?
Abbott's order makes that explicit as well; any government official "is subject to a fine of up to $1,000" if they impose a mandate, per Texas Government Code.
Does Bexar County even meet the requirements to be a "high virus-transmission region" as described by the CDC?
Yes, as does the vast majority of counties in Texas.