Does county commissioner's removal from meeting for refusing to wear a mask violate governor's order?

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

The Governor of Texas signed an executive order last week that was soundly criticized by his political opponents. Abbott’s order restricts state and local agencies, as well as any public or private entity that receives or will receive public funds from mandating face masks or requiring proof of vaccination. Democrat leaders in two major Texas cities are pushing the envelope in issuing face mask mandates despite the governor’s order.

Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch was escorted out of a commissioner’s court meeting today, just minutes after it began. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins ordered a court bailiff to escort Koch out of the room for refusing to wear a face mask. Koch questioned if Jenkins is violating Governor Abbott’s order by insisting on the use of face masks in the courtroom. “Is a move like this by a county judge in accordance with the governor’s most recent [order]?” he asked the county’s attorney.

At the beginning of the meeting, the first in more than a month, Jenkins said he would require masks due to rising COVID-19 case numbers in Dallas County driven by the Delta variant. After the commissioners went into executive session for legal advice, Jenkins set a deadline of 9:30 a.m. for Koch to mask up or have to participate in the meeting virtually. And, he doubled down by saying he might return the county to a red threat level.

Jenkins said he was acting based on a Texas Supreme Court order that gives judges power to take measures to protect people in their courtrooms. Because the county’s highest executive body is a court in name, Jenkins claimed he has authority to require masks.

“Well this is going to be an interesting interpretation,” Koch said.

After briefly going into an executive session to receive legal advice, Jenkins told the commissioners — namely Koch — that they had until 9:30 a.m. to mask up or tune into the meeting virtually from another room. The other four commissioners, including Jenkins, were already masked when the meeting began.

He also said the county may return to a red threat level of “stay home, stay safe,” but that doctors are still considering what that would mean. The definition for the threat levels were determined before vaccines were available, so the guidance should change, he said.

“It’s just an evolving situation,” Jenkins said. “In my courtroom, I want to endeavor to keep you safe.”

So, either the county attorney gave Jenkins the green light on face masks or Jenkins acted unilaterally. Jenkins has a history of overreach during the pandemic, as do other Democrat officials in big cities in Texas. Koch, like many who support the COVID-19 vaccines, pointed out that mask mandates may discourage some people from getting vaccinated. ”We’ve had a hard enough time getting people vaccinated,” Koch said at the time. “I do really have some deep, deep concern for any kind of mask mandates for anyone indoors.” It’s a legitimate concern. If the vaccines work so well (which I think they do as they are meant to do) why do we still have to continue to wear face masks if we are vaccinated? Yes, the Delta variant is more contagious than the original virus but the vaccines protect from more harsh symptoms and hospitalization. There is little evidence that face masks protect us from infection unless we use medical-grade masks, which most people do not do. The mixed messaging from all corners leaves most people confused and frustrated. People are pandemic-weary and frankly, just over it all. It’s time to get back to our lives and live with COVID-19 as we do with other viruses.

At the time that Abbott signed the executive order, critics weren’t pleased with the governor’s focus on personal responsibility. Liberals have no problem letting the government make their decisions for them.

“The new Executive Order emphasizes that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates,” Abbott writes in his statement announcing the order. “[Texans] have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, and engage in leisure activities. Vaccines, which remain in abundant supply, are the most effective defense against the virus, and they will always remain voluntary – never forced – in the State of Texas.”

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff sent a letter to Abbott seeking his permission to allow schools to require face masks. Not long after that request, Abbott signed the order which Nirenberg called “tragically ironic.” He must not think mandating young children to wear face masks in school is an abusive action. There is no data showing a need to require children to wear face masks in school, at least not that has been presented to the public so far.

“It is tragically ironic that Gov. Abbott continues his emergency order but has taken away the tools for us to mitigate that very emergency,” Nirenberg said in a statement. “The governor has shown a callous disregard for life and safety in defiance of clear medical guidance and is risking the safety of our children and the recovery of our economy.”

Judge Jenkins weighed in on Twitter along with other Democrats, making it all political.

The problem with pointing to the latest data from CDC is that the ramped-up push to go back to wearing face masks everywhere, indoors or outside, by vaccinated and non-vaccinated people came from the deeply flawed conclusions drawn from the Provincetown coronavirus cluster. We now understand that it was an unusual circumstance that most people will not come into. The weekend activities may have produced 900 cases but there were no deaths, only 7 hospitalizations, and mostly mild symptoms. The positivity rate in the town peaked at 15% and went back down to just over 4% in a matter of days. The CDC over-hyped the conclusions it drew. Provincetown is a highly vaccinated area. The vaccines worked. Masking may be helpful but it is not a sustainable long-term solution.

Yesterday Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told city employees that they must wear masks when they are at work and unable to socially distance themselves. This is likely running against Governor Abbott’s order. Turner, a Democrat, is a frequent critic of the governor and Republicans in general.

Turner’s memo mentioned the recent uptick in cases because of the delta variant of the coronavirus and the importance of remaining vigilant against the spread of the virus.

“Therefore, effective Wednesday, August 4, 2021, all city employees able to medically tolerate a face covering shall wear a face covering that fully covers the individual’s nose and mouth upon entering the city premises and while on city premises in an area where social distance measures are difficult to maintain,” Turner wrote.

That includes bathrooms, elevators, meeting rooms and offices where people cannot sit at least 6 feet apart, Turner said.

The mayor’s spokesperson justifies the mayor’s overreach by saying it’s for the good of public health.

“The mayor has a right and responsibility to ask city employees to wear face coverings indoors to help stop the virus from spreading,” Benton said. “With the rise in the delta variant cases and high numbers of unvaccinated individuals, Mayor Turner is doing what is necessary to keep (city) employees healthy, so they can provide for their families and the city can ensure that government services are provided to the public without interruption.”

These Texas Democrats are entering power struggles with the governor, who is up for re-election. They politicize his actions when he trusts Texans over government bureaucrats. It will be interesting to watch how far they go to try and push the envelope as we move forward.