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GOP activist, conservatives sue Abbott to stop Texas' mask mandate from being enforced

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 7/3/2020 By Tessa Weinberg, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The day Gov. Greg Abbott’s mandate that face masks be worn in most public places across Texas went into effect, a GOP activist and group of conservatives filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block it.

In the lawsuit, filed Friday in Travis County District Court, Houston GOP activist Steven Hotze, former Republican state Rep. Rick Green, former chair of the Republican Party of Texas Cathie Adams and two Houston business owners argue that Abbott’s executive order and the law that gives him the authority to issue it are unconstitutional.

The lawsuit was filed by Jared Woodfill, a Houston attorney and former chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, who has been involved in previous challenges to Abbott’s executive orders. It seeks both a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction against Abbott’s order, which it argues is “an invasion of liberty.”

“Today a mask, tomorrow a hazmat suit — where does it stop? Everyday GA-29 is in effect, the government tramples on the liberties of Texans,” the lawsuit reads.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office said the office had no comment, and a spokesman for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

After resisting calls to implement a mask mandate statewide, Abbott announced one Thursday afternoon that requires Texans in counties with 20 or more confirmed COVID-19 cases to wear a face mask in buildings and businesses open to the public and in outdoor public space where maintaining six feet of distance from another person isn’t feasible.

The order when into effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday, with limited exceptions.

“We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast, there is little margin for error. If we want to avoid lockdowns, if we want to protect those we care about, we need all Texans to join this effort,” Abbott said in a video that accompanied Thursday’s announcement.

The lawsuit questions the science behind wearing face masks to limit the spread of COVID-19, calling it “uncertain.” It points to changing guidance on wearing masks, and suggestions that people who wear face masks for extended periods of time experience reduced oxygen levels.

Public health experts and virologists have debunked similar claims, including that face masks do not reduce oxygen intake. A recent study worked on by researchers from Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin found that wearing a face mask is one of the most effective ways to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

The lawsuit also points to the more than 2,000 COVID-19 related deaths that have occurred statewide, arguing that a majority of Texans survive COVID-19. As of Thursday, the Texas Department of State Health Services showed at least 2,525 COVID-19 related deaths had been reported.

Compared to “approximately 180,000 deaths in Texas, caused by multiple diseases and accidents” reported by DSHS last year, COVID-19 “has been a trivial cause of disease and death in Texas” the lawsuit reads.

In the past week, new cases and hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients have hit all-time highs in Texas, and Abbott has reintroduced restrictions, including shutting down bars and suspending elective surgeries in eight counties, in an effort to curb the spread.

The lawsuit also argues that Abbott’s order violates provisions of the Texas Constitution by unlawfully suspending laws, and “usurping the authority vested in the Texas Legislature” by making it a punishable offense to violate the order.

Under Abbott’s order, people may be fined up to $250 for each violation after their first warning. Although local law enforcement cannot detain, arrest or jail a person for violating the order, officials may remove violators from businesses.

Hotze and other conservatives suing the state have challenged Abbott’s authority to issue executive orders before, and have asked the Texas Supreme Court to strike down the law that was used as the basis for issuing them.

Abbott first declared a state of disaster due to the pandemic on March 13, and has renewed it multiple times. Chapter 418 of the Texas Government Code allows the governor to declare a state of disaster by executive order or proclamation, and authorizes a wide breadth of responses, such as reallocating state resources and waiving state laws that hinder agencies’ abilities to respond to the pandemic.

The lawsuit argues that under the Texas Constitution and the separation of branches of government, the Legislature is the only entity that can enact laws and delegate some of its powers to another branch to do so.

Hotze, the Houston GOP activist, has previously filed lawsuits challenging Harris County’s restrictions on religious services and requirements to wear face masks, and was joined by Houston-area pastors in a separate lawsuit in Travis County District Court against Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton challenging the state’s previous executive orders related to religious services.

Woodfill has filed multiple lawsuits challenging Abbott’s orders, including one earlier this week on behalf of more than 20 bar owners and private citizens that argue Abbott’s executive order shutting down bars violates provisions of the Texas Constitution and arbitrarily picks winners and losers.

Abbott has recently doubled down on the need for Texans to recommit to best practices, like wearing face masks, but had resisted calls from local officials in Texas’ largest metro areas and Democratic state lawmakers to implement a statewide mask mandate to help combat record cases.

In the wake of Abbott’s announcement, the Texas Democratic Party had said it was “far too little, far too late.” Meanwhile, some conservative lawmakers expressed anger that Abbott had failed to mention the forthcoming mandate on a call with Republican state lawmakers earlier that afternoon.

“We need a special session now so legislators can pass laws, not Abbott,” Rep. Tony Tinderholt, a Republican from Arlington, wrote on Twitter Thursday.

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©2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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