Ft. Bend judge issues injunction against Abbott’s executive order restricting mask mandates

By R. Hans Miller, News Editor
Posted 8/20/21

An injunction was granted by the 434th District Court of Texas granting an injunction upholding Fort Bend County’s order on wearing masks in county buildings, the office of Fort Bend County …

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Ft. Bend judge issues injunction against Abbott’s executive order restricting mask mandates

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An injunction was granted by the 434th District Court of Texas granting an injunction upholding Fort Bend County’s order on wearing masks in county buildings, the office of Fort Bend County Judge KP George announced Thursday at about 9 p.m.

“This is a victory of our community, especially our children and the hardworking employees in Fort Bend County,” said Judge KP George. 

Citing a rapid increase in cases in their respective counties, officials Fort Bend and Harris officials issued orders requiring face coverings in schools and county buildings last week while at the same time filing lawsuits to fight Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order against such mandates.

“The governor has decided that he would put a roadblock in place to prevent local leaders, who know the needs of our communities better than anyone, from taking action during an emergency, which prohibits us from using the tools we need to fight COVID-19 and hurts local communities and schools across the state in their decision-making abilities,” Fort Bend County Judge KP George said during an Aug. 11 press conference.

Near the end of that conference, Fort Bend County Attorney Bridgette Smith-Lawson announced that a temporary restraining order had been issued in the Fort Bend case against Abbott’s executive order GA-38, which prohibits municipalities such as counties and school districts from issuing mask orders, among other requirements. The restraining order was issued by 434th District Court Judge Christian Becerra, as was the injunction issued Thursday.

Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee filed suit on behalf of Harris County after the Harris County Commissioners Court authorized the suit Aug. 12. Afterward, the 345th District Court issued a restraining order granting Harris County the right to issue the mask order.

Menefee said the restraining order is temporary until a final decision in the case is issued.

“While this decision is temporary, it’s a victory for residents in Harris County who are concerned about this public health crisis,” Menefee said in a written statement. “We need every tool at our disposal to stop the spread of COVID-19, including masks and other measures that are proven to slow the spread.”

Growing health concerns

Over the last week, medical professionals and executives from Katy area hospitals and the Texas Medical Center have spoken out regarding an overwhelming caseload in hospitals.

Houston Methodist Director of Critical Care Medicine, Dr. Faisal Masud, urged area residents to get vaccinated during the Fort Bend County press conference Friday. Masud said he spoke on behalf of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals when he urged people who can get vaccinated against COVID-19 and to wear a mask until data indicated it was safe to stop doing so.

“I would never have thought last year that this will be something I would be talking (about) in 2021, but the grim reality is that we have more cases now than ever before in our hospital system,” Masud said.

Masud said the Houston Methodist system is not alone and that hospitals throughout Greater Houston are facing situations with emergency room patients held for extended periods waiting for beds. Intensive care beds are scarce, he said and in the Methodist system, 80-90% of the ICU cases of COVID-19 are those who were not vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the deadly disease.

As of Aug. 20, the Texas Medical Center’s data hub indicates that the test positivity rates for COVID-19 in Greater Houston are at 15.1%, up from 14.6% at the same time the week prior. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are also up. For the week of June 21-27, an average of 48 patients per day were admitted to the hospital due to the coronavirus. For the week of Aug. 9-15, that number had skyrocketed to 369 people per day on average for the TMC. On July 21, 158 patients were admitted to TMC facilities for COVID-19. However, on Aug. 19, those facilities saw 448 people hospitalized with COVID-19 – the fourth day in the last week that number was over 400.

Masud said the average age of a hospitalized COVID-19 patient is getting younger as well, with the average person being in their mid-twenties.

Dr. Stan Spinner, chief medical officer and vice president at Texas Children’s Hospital, who oversees his organization’s pediatrics and children’s urgent care programs, said children are being affected by the delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as well, a change from when the pandemic first began.

“Today, we’re seeing about 200 children test positive for covid just at Texas Children’s every day – and that’s just those that are being tested,” Spinner said. “We know many families aren’t having their kids tested, but they’re still sick. And of those kids being tested, 5-10% of them are being admitted to Texas Children’s Hospital and about a third of those are ending up in the intensive care unit, so our kids are getting sick in greater numbers, and they’re getting sicker and in greater numbers as a result of the delta variant.”

Spinner said the situation with COVID-19 is being complicated by an outbreak of Respiratory Syncytial Virus – also known as RSV – among children. The virus usually causes mild cold-like symptoms, he said, and last year the usual outbreak did not occur because children were wearing masks and isolating. However, after the masks came off earlier this year and people stopped social distancing, an unseasonal outbreak of RSV has occurred.

“So, again, more evidence that masks do what they’re intended to do. They prevent the spread of respiratory infection. So please, everyone, do your job, you know. Do what’s right. Take care of yourself, but take care of your children (too),” Spinner said.

Schools caught in the middle

Both the Fort Bend and Harris orders require masking in schools and appear to have restraining orders backing them up, at least until a decision is made that says otherwise. However, Katy ISD has opted to follow Abbott’s guidelines, according to a statement from KISD Superintendent Ken Gregorski.

“If you have been following the news throughout Texas, there appears to be a political battle as to who has the authority to regulate Texas public schools.  Katy ISD finds itself in a unique position as we are situated in three counties.  I understand the uncertainties of the political landscape surrounding this situation can be frustrating for our families. I will not allow Katy ISD to become a political football when the conflict exists between state and local elected officials,” Gregorski said in a formal statement posted to KISD’s website.

Gregorski said the district intends to follow guidance from the Texas Education Agency as well as Abbott’s orders. However, he did note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials recommend masks, and he encourages that as a best practice given the health risks of COVID-19.

George appeared to acknowledge the authority of school boards to determine policies separately from the counties during a press conference held just after noon on Friday. However, he said, the lawsuit does give them the right to act with the protection of the injunction.

“Initially, some of the school boards said this, ‘You know, our hands are tied,’” George said. “Listen to me. Your hands are no (longer) tied. Go do the right thing.”

A statewide issue

Similar battles in courtrooms throughout the state, including in the Texas Supreme Court, are being fought. Two of the most notable outside the Katy area are for Bexar and Dallas counties, near San Antonio and Dallas, respectively. Menefee said his team had filed an Amicus Brief in support of local mandates on Aug. 14.

“This was a very quick turnaround, but we were able to make sure Harris County’s voice was heard before the Texas Supreme Court makes its decision in two similar cases,” Menefee said. “Their decision has the potential to impact local governments and residents across the state.”

Abbott and his legal team, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, have stood firm in their defense of GA-38 and Abbott’s right to issue the order and the role of personal responsibility in defeating the COVID-19 pandemic. However, on Thursday, Texas’s high court dismissed the appeal because Abbott’s and Paxton’s legal teams had not taken their case to an appropriate appeals court before petitioning the Texas Supreme Court.

“The path forward relies on personal responsibility—not government mandates. The State of Texas will continue to vigorously fight the temporary restraining order to protect the rights and freedoms of all Texans,” Abbott said in an Aug. 11 statement related to the Bexar and Dallas cases.

Editor's note: The Katy Times has reached out to Abbott's and Paxton's offices for comment regarding the injunction and will update this article with their statements if a response is received.

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