After an hour-long hearing in Texas’s 57th Civil District Court, Judge Antonia Arteaga granted a request for a temporary restraining order. San Antonio and Bexar County filed a lawsuit earlier Tuesday seeking to halt the directive.
“I don’t do this lightly,” Arteaga said during the hearing, according to local media. She said comments from the San Antonio medical director “weighed heavily” in her decision, along with the fact that the school year was already underway for many children.
“And those under 12, of course, as you know, don’t have access to the vaccine, and they’re already in school,” the judge said. “So I do find that this is emergent, I do find that it is necessary.”
The order is only effective until Monday, at which point the plaintiffs will go back to court to seek a longer-term extension. In the meantime, San Antonio and Bexar County will move to implement indoor masking requirements at city- and county-owned buildings and in public schools, officials said.
Abbott’s press secretary, Renae Eze, said she expects higher courts to preserve the governor’s order.
“Governor Abbott’s resolve to protect the rights and freedoms of all Texans has not wavered,” she said in a statement. “There have been dozens of legal challenges to the Governor’s executive orders — all of which have been upheld in the end. We expect a similar outcome when the San Antonio trial court’s decision is reviewed by the appellate courts.”
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg applauded the judge’s decision and called Abbott’s order a “reckless ban on face masks in schools.” He said the judge’s action restores the authority local officials need to manage the public health crisis driven by the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus.
“I don’t know about you, but I’ll take our community medical director Junda Woo’s medical advice over Governor Abbott’s 100 times out of 100,” Nirenberg said.
“We’ve seen during the course of this pandemic actions from state officials here and elsewhere devolve into pandering politics,” Nirenberg added. “And what we want to do is simply protect the lives and the health of our community.”
The mayor said his community is reeling as the virus spreads rapidly, continuing to drive up hospitalizations in an already-stressed health-care system. Most people thought the worst of the pandemic was past, he said.
“Our public health professionals rightly cautioned that we need to continue to keep our eyes open, and they were right,” Nirenberg said. “But I don’t think anyone foresaw just how intensely and how quickly this delta surge would overtake our state.”
With their authority restored, local officials plan to require masks in school and in city facilities, he said. Those are the only actions planned as of now, but the mayor said the city would be “mindful and guided by public health authorities in terms of what conditions require.”
In a news conference after the ruling, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said there are more than 1,200 people hospitalized with the virus, noting that the county would probably exceed previous peak hospitalizations — 1,267 last summer and 1,520 in the winter, he said.
“We’re facing a much more dangerous situation than we had in the summer or in the winter surge,” Wolff said.
He called the situation “very, very dangerous for children,” with pediatric hospitalizations higher in recent weeks than earlier in the pandemic.
The lawsuit from San Antonio and Bexar County comes less than a day after Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins filed a similar challenge. Jenkins, a Democrat and an elected official, on Monday said he had asked a court to declare that the governor lacks the legal authority to impose the mask mandate ban.
“This is about ensuring there’s adequate medical resources and hospital bed capacity to take care of people with COVID and any other condition that requires medical care or hospitalization,” Jenkins tweeted.
A children’s advocacy group also filed a lawsuit challenging Abbott’s order Sunday.
In a further rebuke of the ban, the Dallas Independent School District will require, starting Tuesday, that all students and staff wear masks in school buildings. Announcing the decision Monday, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said that “with numbers getting significantly worse, this decision is urgent.”
In Florida, DeSantis, too, is facing a wave of opposition to his order barring mask requirements in schools.
The Miami-Dade Public School district is expected to announce as soon as Wednesday that it is requiring masks in schools, joining other Florida school districts that have announced plans to buck the governor, a person familiar with the discussion said.
DeSantis has argued that mask-wearing should be a matter of personal choice even if health authorities say otherwise. This week, the governor’s office said superintendents who institute mask requirements could have their pay docked.
“Schools wouldn’t be defunded,” DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw said on Twitter. “Only the salaries of those superintendents and school board members who intentionally defy the EO and the subsequent rules protecting parents’ rights. Think of it like targeted sanctions.”
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Tuesday that he will not let that threat influence his decision-making.
“At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck, a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees,” he said Tuesday.
Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna, who on Monday announced a mask mandate in schools in the state capital, replied: “You can’t put a price tag on someone’s life, including my salary.”
Hospitalizations across the United States have soared past the peak seen in last summer’s Sun Belt surge, straining resources in Florida, Texas and other hotspot states that have resisted renewing pandemic public health measures. Current hospitalizations for the virus passed 68,000 nationwide on Monday — well over last summer’s high of about 66,000 — as daily new admissions approached 15,000.
Emergency room doctors and hospital officials have sounded the alarm for weeks about the influx of patients. One physician in Houston compared the intensive care units in America’s fourth-largest city to a “war zone.”
At Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital in Houston, workers were setting up tents to house an overflow of patients. The region including Austin has just six ICU beds for a population of nearly 2.4 million, state data showed, while the Dallas metropolitan area had just 100 ICU beds available for a population of more than 8 million.
A flurry of warnings came from other medical establishments in the state. The chief executive of the sprawling Texas Medical Center in Houston said hospitalizations are spiking at a pace not seen in a year, while the region faces a shortage of nurses. An “urgently hiring” health system in Greenville, Tex., Hunt Regional Healthcare, temporarily closed one of its emergency medical centers citing a “CRITICAL COVID SURGE.”
Even as emergency rooms have swelled with patients, some Republican lawmakers continued to denounce public health requirements aimed at slowing the virus spread. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) told Fox News there should be “zero” mask or vaccine mandates — a call that came just hours after he and Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) introduced legislation that would ban such directives. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) released a video over the weekend that urged people to resist the regulations implemented by health experts.
Earlier this month, President Biden called out Republican officials — after being asked about Abbott and DeSantis — for blocking efforts he said could curb the virus’s spread. “I say to these governors, please help. But if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way,” Biden said.
The Biden administration has directed agencies throughout the federal government to devise plans for requiring workers to get vaccinated. Defense officials said Monday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will require all active service members to get a coronavirus vaccine shot by mid-September, an acknowledgment of the way the virus can wreak chaos in military units.
Some states have made similar moves. Washington state, where infections are rising, said it would require most state employees and all nursing home staff to get vaccinated against the coronavirus by October, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said Monday.
Just over half the U.S. population is now fully immunized, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but cases are still on the rise. With the onset of delta variant cases, millions of Americans say they feel confused about next steps and overwhelmed by the abundance of new rules, research and data they need to absorb.
This follows a study published this week that shows the number of U.S. adolescents and young adults who screened positive for depression and suicide risk increased during the pandemic. School closures, disruption to routines and social isolation were among the main concerns, according to health experts at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Robyn Dixon, Loveday Morris, Bryan Pietsch, Adela Suliman and John Wagner contributed to this report.