The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told three of the state’s largest cities to ease up on strict coronavirus regulations or risk defending their rules in court.
Paxton’s office sent letters to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins on Tuesday, according to The Texas Tribune. The AG’s office warned the officials about “unconstitutional and unlawful restrictions” that may be challenged in court if not rectified soon.
In three similar letters, Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Vassar directed the cities to bring their coronavirus restrictions in line with Gov. Greg Abbott’s Executive Order GA-21 controlling the gradual reopening of the Texas economy.
“Unlike the governor’s order, which protects the robust constitutional and statutory rights protecting Texans’ free exercise of religion, your local orders unlawfully trample religious freedom and expose the county and the city to legal liability,” Vassar said in the San Antonio letter.
“Insofar as your local orders conflict with Executive Order GA-21 by restricting essential or reopened [businesses], they are invalid and unenforceable,” Vassar continued.
The deputy attorney general also pointed out where each city conflicted with the governor’s directive on the use of masks, shelter-in-place orders, criminal penalties for emergency order violations, and other more onerous regulations.
Jenkins pushed back against Vassar’s letter, claiming that Dallas County coronavirus regulations were crafted to adhere to the governor’s order, suggesting he is being hypocritical in “not want[ing] his own guidelines followed.”
“We intentionally modeled the public health guidelines based on the Governor’s recommendations, never imagining he did not want his own guidelines followed. I ask the public to make decisions based on the recommendations of public health professionals: our lives depend on it,” Jenkins said in a statement.
STATEMENT from Dallas County @JudgeClayJ after the Texas Attorney General sent him a letter this afternoon saying the county pandemic order was too restrictive and in conflict with the state. pic.twitter.com/58wp0Loa8g
— Jason Whitely (@JasonWhitely) May 12, 2020
Nirenberg and Wolff responded to the state AG’s letter during a Tuesday press briefing, according to KSAT.
“It’s frustrating that a letter from the (attorney general), which is a political letter from a politician, is reported as fact,” Nirenberg said. Wolff followed up expressing confusion at the letter saying it sends “a lot of mixed signals.”
Abbott has taken a tiered approach to reopening the state. The state has already lifted restrictions for two of the three waves of reopening, the last come as early as May 18. Almost all businesses will remain limited in operation or capacity, however.
In the first wave, restaurants, movie theaters, museums, and churches were allowed to open with limited capacity, followed by businesses such as barber shops and tanning salons in the second wave. Office buildings and manufacturers that were deemed non-essential and gyms will be allowed to open as early as May 18, barring a flare-up in cases of the coronavirus that could extend the partial shutdown or cause some rules to be put back in place.
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