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Legal? Constitutional? Harris County order requiring face coverings challenged

The mandatory order issued by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo follows those of other metro areas, but some Texas judges claim it’s not allowed under state law.

HOUSTON — It’s become a polarizing issue about citizen rights and the government’s reach, with public health and safety stuck in the middle.

The mandatory face-covering order issued by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo follows those of other metro areas, but some Texas judges claim it’s flat out not allowed under state law.

“I do not find a statutory or legal basis that would allow me or anyone else in government to issue an order requiring citizens to wear a mask in public,” Montgomery County Jude Mike Keough posted on his official Facebook page.

“My general counsel was crystal clear,” said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry. “It's unconstitutional and you will get you sued.”

RELATED: Risk a $1,000 fine if you don't cover your face in public in Houston, Harris County

RELATED: 'Liberty and freedom' | Other counties say they will not require masks like Harris County, Houston

The Harris County Attorney’s office interprets the law differently.

“I think the law is pretty clear. It’s just a literal reading of the law and it says what it says,” said First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard. “Now they may disagree with the policy and that’s certainly the privilege that other elected officials have, but it doesn’t change the law."

Chapter 418 of the Texas Government  Code deals with emergency management. It designates a county judge is as the emergency management director of their jurisdiction and gives the judge “the powers granted to the governor under this chapter on an appropriate local scale.”

Under the declaration of a local disaster, the county judge or a mayor of a municipality may “control the movement of persons.”

“Our view is if you can tell somebody they need to stay in their house, or tell them they cannot go into a certain building you can also put reasonable regulations on that movement,” Soard said.

He claims mandatory face coverings are legal. But that interpretation has gotten governments sued, from the Connecticut governor to San Bernardino County commissioners in California.

Now, Harris County Judge Hidalgo, too.

“She has no authority to do this whatsoever under the Texas constitution,” said conservative activist Dr. Steven Hotze.

Hotze filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order and injunction to block Hidalgo’s order, which is set to take effect Monday.

The petition claims Hidalgo has exceeded her authority by issuing more restrictive orders than Governor Greg Abbott, who has not issued a directive for face coverings in Texas. It also argues that the directive deprives Texans of “liberty and freedom” under the state’s constitution.

"The rights we enjoy under the Texas Constitution are being trampled on by Judge Hidalgo, while millions of individuals have lost their jobs and thousands of businesses are on the brink of bankruptcy," Hotze’s attorney Jared Woodfill said in the lawsuit.

Woodfill and Hotze organized a group of more than 200 protesters downtown Thursday to voice their opposition to the order.

“That’s people’s rights. I respect them,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Sometimes they speak favorably about you, sometimes they don’t.”

Soard said the Harris County Attorney’s Office is prepared to defend Judge Hidalgo’s order in court.

As for policing the directive, both Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Houston Police Art Acevedo said their deputies and officers will be taking an educational approach to enforcement seeking voluntary compliance. Acevedo added that citations would only be written “as a last resort.”

Coronavirus symptoms

The symptoms of coronavirus can be similar to the flu or a bad cold. Symptoms include a fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Some patients also have nausea, body aches, headaches and stomach issues. Losing your sense of taste and/or smell can also be an early warning sign.

Most healthy people will have mild symptoms. A study of more than 72,000 patients by the Centers for Disease Control in China showed 80 percent of the cases there were mild.

But infections can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death, according to the World Health Organization. Older people with underlying health conditions are most at risk for becoming seriously ill. However, U.S. experts are seeing a significant number of younger people being hospitalized, including some in ICU.

The CDC believes symptoms may appear anywhere from two to 14 days after being exposed.

Human coronaviruses are usually spread through...

  • The air by coughing or sneezing
  • Close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands
  • Touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands.

Help stop the spread of coronavirus

  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Eat and sleep separately from your family members
  • Use different utensils and dishes
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with your arm, not your hand.
  • If you use a tissue, throw it in the trash.
  • Follow social distancing

Lower your risk

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • If you are 60 or over and have an underlying health condition such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or respiratory illnesses like asthma or COPD, the World Health Organization advises you to try to avoid crowds or places where you might interact with people who are sick.

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