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El Paso’s original mask mandate reinstated, for now

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Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that the temporary injunction applies to Dr. Hector Ocaranza’s original county-wide indoor mask mandate.

El Paso’s universal indoor face mask mandate can be reinstated, a judge ruled Thursday.

County Court-at-Law No. 7 Judge Ruben Morales issued a temporary injunction Thursday that allows El Paso City-County Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza’s mask mandate to remain in place until the matter is decided at trial on Oct. 7, or unless a higher court rules otherwise before then.

Morales, a Democrat, granted the city of El Paso a temporary restraining order on Aug. 17 against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that bans local mask mandates.

The El Paso-based 8th Court of Appeals narrowed the enforceable scope of Ocaranza’s mandate on Aug. 27 to public school districts and city-owned buildings, but the temporary injunction allows Ocaranza to reinstate his original county-wide mandate.

The universal indoor face mask requirement will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

Starting Sept. 4, anyone age 2 and older must wear a face covering inside any building within county limits, regardless of whether it is a publicly or privately-owned site. Per the mandate, the covering must be worn over both the mouth and nose.

The order does not apply to those “exercising or engaging in physical activity indoors,” and allows for people to remove their face covering when eating or drinking inside a restaurant.

“The wearing of masks or face coverings significantly reduces the spread of the COVID-19 virus and mask mandates have been shown to be effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19,” reads Morales’ order granting the temporary injunction. “The governor himself previously instituted mask mandates and they worked.”

Abbott’s executive order “acknowledges the benefits of masks by encouraging that they be worn when it is not feasible to maintain six feet of social distancing from another person not in the same household,” it continues.

Benjamin Dower, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, said Attorney General Ken Paxton would appeal the temporary injunction.

Paxton has challenged similar injunctions issued by district court judges in Bexar, Dallas and Travis counties that have allowed officials there to continue requiring masks. Thus far, the Republican-controlled Texas Supreme Court has struck down Bexar County’s mandate until the issue is fully litigated in lower courts.

Abbott has maintained that Texas will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic from people exercising “personal responsibility” rather than by state or local officials issuing mask mandates.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, in communities with substantial or high spread of COVID-19. The CDC considers El Paso to have substantial community transmission because it had an average of 50 to 100 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the preceding seven days.

El Paso had been classified at high community spread from Aug. 17-31 because more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents had been recorded. The infection rate began to decline Aug. 27, nine days after the local mask mandate took effect.

Cover photo: Raquel Andrade-Carrillo, a special education paraprofessional at Don Haskins PK-8 School, assists students on the first day of classes. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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