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'The governor’s power is just not absolute' | City, county attorneys believe new City of Houston employee mask mandate is legal

Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a memo to all city employees Monday about the mandate.

HOUSTON — Starting Wednesday, City of Houston employees will have to wear masks in many situations.

Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a memo to all city employees Monday about the mandate, which requires masks on city premises where social distancing isn’t possible for employees “able to medically tolerate” a face covering.

It comes less than a week after an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott banning mask mandates by cities, counties, and school districts.

RELATED: Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner issues memo mandating city employees to begin wearing masks on Wednesday

City of Houston Attorney Arturo Michel released the following statement:

“The Governor’s order exceeds his limited authority under the Texas Disaster Act in a variety of ways. In particular, the Governor has no authority to suspend the disaster authority of local governments that the Legislature has expressly given them. The City also interprets the Governor’s order to limit the City’s ability to regulate the general public during a declared disaster, not to encompass or limit the City’s rights as an employer to establish reasonable and necessary workplace safety rules for its employees.

The mask requirement is consistent with CDC guidance, provides a safe workplace for City employees, including first responders, and will, therefore, minimize the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace and other adverse effects the City and its employees have experienced during this pandemic.”

Christian D. Menefee, Harris County attorney, tweeted his support for Mayor Turner’s decision on Monday.

“What the mayor is doing is incredibly important to saving lives,” said Menefee.

The county attorney also believes the mandate is legal.

“The governor’s power is just not absolute,” said Menefee. “He’s relying on a law called the Disaster Act, but he’s grossly misusing that law.”

Menefee is having his office’s employees wear a mask if they can’t socially distance.

It’s a similar story next door in Fort Bend County.

“Now in all our offices, we’re requiring all our employees to wear masks,” said Carmen P. Turner, Fort Bend County Tax Assessor-Collector.

On Tuesday, Fort Bend County Judge KP George called on all county staff to wear masks and socially distance.

He also urged Gov. Abbott to rescind his executive order.

RELATED: Fort Bend Co. judge tells unvaccinated to 'participate in your own rescue' and get vaccinated

“I’m trying to save lives,” said Judge George. “I’m trying to do my job, and putting hurdles every step of the way, it is very frustrating.”

Fort Bend County also reinstated physical distancing, starting Tuesday with Commissioners Court.

Judge George said the county will bring back health screenings for employees and visitors at county buildings during the following week.

KHOU reached out to Gov. Abbott’s office Tuesday afternoon about whether the mayor’s mask mandate violates the recent executive order, as well as whether the state will challenge the new rule in court, but has not heard back.

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