Texas AG issues warning to Austin and Travis County calling local health orders ‘unlawful’ and ‘confusing’

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton makes comments during a news conference in Dallas (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued warnings in letters to three major areas of the state for implementing recent public health orders that exceeded state law, according to a state release.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt were included in the warnings along with Dallas County, Bexar County and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

The letter to Austin and Travis County calls the current local health orders “unlawful” and confusing to law-abiding citizens. The letter states new orders issued by these areas and leaders fail to differentiate between recommendations and mandates.

Over the last two weeks, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has started unrolling plans to re-open the Texas economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Abbott’s executive order was to supersede any local orders in Texas.

On May 4, Mayor Adler extended the city’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order through May 30. In the same media conference, Judge Eckhardt extended the county’s order to June 15.

“Unfortunately, a few Texas counties and cities seem to have confused recommendations with requirements and have grossly exceeded state law to impose their own will on private citizens and businesses. These letters seek to avoid any public confusion as we reopen the state,” said Attorney General Paxton. “I trust that local officials will act quickly to correct any orders that unlawfully conflict with Texas law and Governor Abbott’s Executive Orders.”

READ: State’s full letter to Austin and Travis County on local health orders

The letter to Austin and Travis County highlights five aspects of the local order implemented by Mayor Adler and Judge Eckhardt.

  • Places of Worship: The letter states the local order attempts to restrict essential services, including those provided by houses of worship
  • Contact-tracing: The letter alleges the city’s order encourages restaurants to keep track of customers that dine-in the restaurant. The letter acknowledges that the order only recommends keeping a tally of names, but it “forces restaurants into submission by threatening to release the names of the restaurants that don’t comply.” The letter goes on calling the city’s order “Orwellian” and “raises privacy concerns.”
  • Masks: The letter states neither the County nor the city can impose civil or criminal penalties for not wearing a mask in public.
  • Shelter-in-Place: The letter alleges Gov. Abbott’s executive order does not include a mandatory shelter-in-place, but the city/county order does. The state’s order only requires Texans to minimize social gatherings and in-person contact outside of the same household.
  • Criminal Offenses: The letter states the local health order attempts to impose a criminal penalty for violations. Gov. Abbott modified the state’s order on May 7 eliminating the penalty of confinement for violating state/local orders.

In response, Travis County issued a statement voicing its disagreement with the letter from Paxton.

“Travis County has received the letter and our county attorneys are reviewing it. Our initial thought is we disagree with the Attorney General.”

The City of Austin, meanwhile, released a statement on the letter, saying:

 “The City’s intent was to adopt an Order that complies with the Governor’s Executive Orders while continuing to encourage our citizens to stay home and work safe. We are confident that we accomplished just that.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler sent a statement as well, echoing the belief the local orders do not conflict with the governor’s order:

“Up to this point, we have avoided the naked politicization of the virus crisis. I will not follow the AG down that road. The City’s Order complements, incorporates, and does not conflict with the Governor’s Order. We will continue working to keep our community safe to the fullest extent allowed by law.”

Abhi Rahman with Texas Democrats said state leaders should be “thanking local leaders” for stepping up during the coronavirus pandemic.

“State leaders like Paxton always told us they were for local control, now, they want to do everybody’s job. Intimidating our county judges and mayors on the front lines of the coronavirus battle isn’t going to work. Paxton and Abbott were perfectly fine with throwing everything off to local leaders while they didn’t have a plan. Our local leaders stepped up and are the reason Texas has contained the coronavirus crisis. Paxton and Abbott should be thanking our local leaders, not writing weak letters aimed to score political points with their base,” Rahman said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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