How Texas Government Offices Cope Without Mask, Vaccine Warrants

A Montgomery County judge was set to sit a jury on Monday when she learned that the clerk who had disputed 57 potential jurors had just tested positive for COVID-19. The judge and most lawyers, court staff and jurors were not wearing masks, observers said.

Some jurors were “a little dismayed” to find they had been exposed in the exercise of their civic duty, said lawyer Greg Gladden, whose trial of the client was ultimately postponed.

“I think citizens forced to assemble within the confines of the downtown courthouse for the purpose of jury trials is unsafe because judges are limited in how they can try to run their courts “Gladden said. “They are not allowed to demand masks and they are not allowed to determine or even ask if people have been vaccinated. “

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Montgomery County Court staff are among a wide range of officials navigating Gov. Greg Abbott’s bans on masking and mandatory vaccinations amid a surge in COVID infections, hospitalizations and deaths at across Texas.

Most government entities say they safely manage public interactions within the parameters of the Republican governor’s decrees, which prioritize personal choices. Following a fourth wave of COVID fueled largely by the delta variant, the Houston Chronicle polled 75 state and local agencies this week about their current security practices; 30 responded.

Texas agencies have said they encourage staff to get vaccinated and some have asked employees to voluntarily share with administrators if they have. Many have also requested masking on the interior.

Outliers in terms of responses included major city officials – Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Fort Bend County Judge KP George and senior San Antonio officials, all Democrats – who categorically stated that Abbott’s executive orders made it difficult to fight the transmission of the virus. They felt their hands were tied by uniform restrictions that put the public at risk in areas with high infection rates.

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After Turner announced a city hall mask warrant, ISD Houston Superintendent Millard House II stepped forward Thursday to say he supported a similar demand for schools despite the ban. from Abbott.

Officials at some agencies told The Chronicle they were reluctant to criticize the governor’s restrictions for fear of repercussions.

A government employee had a more direct view of the bans in an email exchange: “I really thought we were coming out of this nonsense, but here we are again. How did we get to the point in this country that even our illnesses are so hyper-politicized? When asked if this statement could be traced to the record, the longtime employee said, “It’s not NOOOOOOO way, LOL.”

Harris County District Attorney Christian Menefee says Abbott is abusing the disaster law. He warned that the governor’s power “is not absolute”.

“While he acknowledges that COVID is a health crisis that must be resolved, he goes on to ban measures that would help alleviate this disaster,” the county prosecutor said in a statement. “The disaster law does not allow him to do this, and local county and city officials should be able to take the necessary steps to stop the spread of COVID – including issuing a mask warrant. . “

The state requires masks in 88 prisons where vaccination rates are below 70%. However, 11 establishments where the population is above this threshold no longer have mask requirements. In state juvenile institutions, staff must pass a daily medical examination before entering the premises. The Harris County Community Care and Corrections Department screen staff and clients as they enter.

The state’s DMV does not require a COVID vaccination or test, but it does offer staff plexiglass screens, PPE, and staff have access to thermal temperature scanners.

Harris County employees can get silver stickers on their job badges if they provide proof of vaccination. Employees can work without a mask at county facilities with proof of vaccination.

Harris Health facilities require masking for staff under a health care exception. Spokesman Brian McLeod said that once a fully approved vaccine exists, the agency will also enforce a policy requiring COVID vaccinations. In public hospitals, employees must undergo routine tests or prove that they are vaccinated. Staff and visitors to these facilities should wear face coverings or PPE, said Christine Mann of the Texas Health & Human Services Commission.

Other agencies that have exceptions to Abbott’s ban include the Texas Work Commission, which follows CDC and DHS guidelines for in-person vocational rehabilitation services.

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Harris County East Side 2 Station is asking employees to check weekly if they are quarantined and vaccinated, but spokesperson Scott Spiegel said: “Due to state law providing information related to COVID is strictly voluntary at this time. Employees are also screened before entering the building.

Amery Reid, spokesperson for Precinct. 3, said officials in western Harris County “have not struggled to protect staff and the public while upholding the governor’s mandate regarding the freedom of individuals to mask themselves and to immunize.”

Ward 4 in the northwest is encouraging but does not require staff to be vaccinated. Pursuant to the order, Commissioner Jack Cagle is not asking whether employees have followed through, according to spokesman Joe Stinebaker.

PCT 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who represents the Houston center, said Abbott’s order does not comply with the latest CDC guidelines or does not reflect the current state of COVID transmission and its impact on the local health system.

“Texas is too big to have a single policy, and we would like science and epidemiologists understanding disease transmission to inform our COVID-19 response to keep our community safe,” Ellis said. He believes this “assumes” consistency and certainty in the state’s response to COVID-19 “is more important than responding to the changing conditions of the virus.”

Hidalgo, the county’s top official, said at a recent press conference that any policy that ties the hands of the government makes the fight against COVID difficult.

“But so is the decision not to get vaccinated, so this is where we need everyone to do our part,” she said.

Lisa Gray and Dylan McGuiness contributed to it.

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