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Local Texas Officials Are Rebelling Against Governor's Ban On Mask Mandates

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Let's go to Texas now, where hospitals across the state are running out of intensive care beds and staff are struggling to keep up with a steep rise in COVID-19 cases. This week, Governor Greg Abbott asked for out-of-state assistance to shore up medical staffing, all while fighting local governments over their attempts to mandate masks in schools. For more, we turn now to Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive.

Welcome.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So all right, local school districts around the country have been going up against these bans on mask mandates. What are those efforts looking like in Texas right now?

FLAHIVE: Yeah, yesterday, San Antonio and Bear County sued the governor and asked for a temporary restraining order against his executive order banning mask mandates. He said such a ban was outside his authority. The judge granted the request, which means their local health authorities can make masks mandatory in K through 12 schools for now, which they immediately did.

At a press conference, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the governor had systematically tied local health authorities' hands.

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RON NIRENBERG: We've had enough. We need to make sure that the health authorities are able to issue directives and that the local authorities are able to manage through this pandemic.

FLAHIVE: The temporary restraining order is only in effect until Monday, when they'll have another hearing. And San Antonio isn't the only one going up against the governor on masks. Dallas is suing. Houston Independent School District announced it would defy the governor and force kids to wear masks last week, and some other large school districts are as well.

CHANG: OK, all kinds of defiance right now against the governor. How is Abbott responding to all of this?

FLAHIVE: I mean, the governor's consistently framed this issue as personal freedom, choice for parents and the public. He reiterated that stance a few weeks ago in an interview with CNBC as cases were already exponentially increasing in the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CLOSING BELL")

GREG ABBOTT: Anybody can wear a mask if they want to. It's just that it's a decision to be made by Texans not to be forced by government.

FLAHIVE: And the governor's office has called the lawsuits misguided. And he said that they, of course, have this authority to issue these orders under a public health disaster.

CHANG: Well, can you tell us a little more about what is the COVID surge looking like in Texas right now?

FLAHIVE: Yeah, I mean, five weeks ago, the state had about 1,500 people in the hospital with COVID-19. Now it's more than 10,000 people, mostly unvaccinated. About 45% of the state is fully vaccinated. And the state reported this week that only 329 staffed ICU beds were left in a state of around 29 million people.

CHANG: Wow.

FLAHIVE: Here in San Antonio, I spoke with Tommye Austin, who's in charge of nursing at University Health System. She said they're running out of space and not just for the ICU but for the whole hospital.

TOMMYE AUSTIN: All of our beds are pretty much occupied - patients bedded in hallways, patients bedding in any nook and cranny that I can find. For patients, it's a scary time.

CHANG: That does sound frightening. Well, can you just tell us a little more about what the governor's going to be doing to respond to all of this?

FLAHIVE: Yeah, the - on Monday, governor announced he would turn to medical staffing companies to try and meet the demand in Texas. There is a nursing shortage across the country, and I've spoken with health care staff struggling with that as well. The governor also asked hospitals to cancel elective surgeries and has directed emergency managers to set up additional treatment and vaccine centers. So there is some movement at the statewide level, but critics are saying it's the prevention that the governor's not doing enough on, specifically when it comes to masks.

CHANG: That is Paul Flahive, reporter with Texas Public Radio in San Antonio.

Thank you, Paul.

FLAHIVE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.