Gov. Abbott Bans Mask Mandates, Cuts Unemployment

Photo from the Texas Tribune.

By Terrance Turner

May 18, 2021

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott today issued an executive order banning state governmental entities — including cities, counties, school districts or officials — from having mask mandates. Starting Friday, May 21, any government entity that tries to impose a mask mandate can face a fine of up to $1,000, according to the order. Exceptions to the order include jails, state-supported living centers, and government-owned or -operated hospitals.

Public schools will be allowed to maintain mask-wearing policies until Friday, June 4. After June 4, no teacher, student, staff member or visitor can be required to wear a mask inside school buildings. (Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, has its final day of classes on June 11. May 27 is the last day for some students in the second-biggest district, Dallas ISD.)

The Texas Tribune reports that while 30% of Texans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the vast majority of children are unvaccinated. The Pfizer vaccine was authorized just last week for children as young as 12. Despite the fact that a vaccine is not yet available for grade-school children, Abbott touted vaccines as part of his rationale for the order.

“The Lone Star State continues to defeat COVID-19 through the use of widely-available vaccines, antibody therapeutic drugs, and safe practices utilized by Texans in our communities,” Governor Abbott said in a press release. “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.”

Yesterday, Abbott informed the U.S. Department of Labor that Texas will opt out of further federal unemployment compensation for the COVID-19 pandemic effective June 26, 2021. This includes the $300 weekly unemployment supplement from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.

Austin ABC affiliate KVUE says that Texas is ending participation in all ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) compensation. The Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) sent KVUE a statement: “The governor has announced that on June 26, 2021, Texas will stop participating in ARPA programs, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and the Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation Program (MEUC).” This means that self-employed, part-time or freelance workers may lose all benefits.

Abbott cited data from the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) in his decision.  “According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the number of job openings in Texas is almost identical to the number of Texans who are receiving unemployment benefits,” he said. “That assessment does not include the voluminous jobs that typically are not listed, like construction and restaurant jobs. In fact, there are nearly 60 percent more jobs open (and listed) in Texas today than there was in February 2020, the month before the Pandemic hit Texas.”

The governor added that 45% of the jobs pay more than $15.50 an hour. He also asserted that TWC data shows a portion of claims contain fraud: “TWC estimates that nearly 18 percent of all claims for unemployment benefits during the pandemic are confirmed or suspected to be fraudulent, which totals more than 800,000 claims, worth as much as $10.4 billion, if all claims had been paid.”

These decisions come just a week after the CDC announced new guidelines for indoor and outdoor mask-wearing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on May 13 that fully vaccinated Americans do not have to wear masks — indoors or outdoors. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky made the declaration during a news conference.

“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” Walensky said. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”

UPDATE (MAY 19): Today, Gov. Abbott signed into law a bill that would ban abortion the minute a fetal heartbeat is detected. As NPR points out, that would be around six weeks into pregnancy — before many women even know they are pregnant.

The new law makes no exception for pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest. But it does allow citizens to sue anyone they believe may have been involved in helping a pregnant individual violate the ban. The Texas Tribune notes that the law would allow virtually anyone to sue an abortion provider — even if the individual has no connection to the doctor or the woman.

The law drew opposition from more than 300 Texas attorneys who raised concerns about the constitutionality of the legislation. They’re concerned that it could subject Texans to harassment. In a letter to Texas House Speaker Dade Pheelan, the lawyers outlined their grievances.

“We are specifically concerned that HB 1515 and SB 8 grant ‘any person’ the right to sue, including even those who do not reside in Texas and those with no connection to a patient, against a broad range of defendants. Among those who could face civil liability are physicians who provide abortion care, but also nurses, clinic staff, and any others who helped the patient access abortion care. This means that family members, clergy, domestic violence and rape crisis counselors, or referring physicians could be subject to tens of thousands of dollars in liability to total strangers,” the attorneys wrote.

Even more egregiously, these bills add as potential defendants any person who merely formed an intent to help a patient, which could include donors and supporters of abortion funds and clinics, and could make individuals liable before they took any action at all.

This exceptionally broad cause of action and the almost unlimited array of potential defendants is inconsistent with  the Texas Constitution’s minimum requirements to maintain a civil legal action in Texas. The Texas Constitution allows access to our courts only to a “person for an injury done him.”

From “Attorney Opposition to HB 1515 and SB 8”
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