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Houston mask mandate could defy Texas governor's order

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Houston — Houston city workers are being told they must resume wearing masks while on the job, a requirement that could defy Governor Greg Abbott's most recent executive order banning such mandates.

Mayor Sylvester Turner issued the mask mandate on Monday due to a "recent uptick in positive COVID-19 cases in our community and in our workplace linked to the new delta variant."

"It is so very important that we remain vigilant in doing our part to reduce the spread of COVID-19," Turner wrote in memo to all city employees. The Houston Chronicle first reported the new order, which requires all employees to wear a mask while on city premises and when they can't be socially distant from others.

Officials in Dallas and Williamson counties this week put in place new orders requiring people to wear masks inside county courthouses, citing a Texas Supreme Court order they say allows the judiciary to take reasonable actions to protect people from COVID-19.

During Tuesday's meeting of Dallas County Commissioners Court, County Judge Clay Jenkins required all in attendance to wear masks. Jenkins said that because the county's highest executive body is a court in name, he had authority to require masks, the Dallas Morning News reported. Jenkins is not a judicial judge but is the county's top elected official.

Commissioner J.J. Koch, a Republican, refused to wear a mask during the meeting. Jenkins, a Democrat, had a bailiff remove Koch to another room, where he joined the meeting virtually.

Last month, Abbott repeated his executive order banning mask mandates by any state, county or local government entity. He has said that local governments trying to impose mask mandates could be fined up to $1,000. In issuing his May executive order, Abbott said in a statement, "Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities. We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans' liberty to choose whether or not they mask up."

Similar local mask mandates that appeared to be in conflict with state orders have faced legal action by the Texas Attorney General's Office.

A spokeswoman for Abbott's office and a spokesperson for the attorney general's office didn't immediately reply to emails seeking comment Tuesday.

In a statement Tuesday, Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel said Abbott's order does not "limit the city's rights as an employer to establish reasonable and necessary workplace safety rules for its employees."

The mask mandate in Houston comes as hospitalizations across the state continue to rise due in part to the highly contagious delta variant.

On Tuesday, there were 7,305 people in Texas hospitals with COVID-19, the highest number since February 19, when hospitalizations had subsided following a winter surge. Since July 1, hospitalizations in Texas have increased by 359%. State health officials reported 51 deaths on Tuesday, the most since April 18.

The resurgence of COVID-19 in Texas has put some cities' health systems in dire circumstances, as intensive care unit beds fill up, officials say. In South Texas, Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales this week said hospitals in Corpus Christi, Victoria, Kingsville and Beeville were limited in their ability to handle the latest COVID-19 surge of patients due to a shortage of nurses. San Antonio is also facing a similar nursing shortage amid a spike in patients.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said during a news conference Tuesday he worried the return this month of Texas children to classrooms could make the situation worse in the state. Hotez asked officials to help students get through the school year safely with the help of social distancing, masks and vaccines.

"If we don't do that, it's really hard to imagine how things go well," he said. "You've got delta accelerating, low vaccination rates among adolescents, young adults, no ability to enforce mask mandates. What makes people think this is going to go well?"

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