GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) — Masks and social distancing are required inside the Williamson County Justice Center, officials said Tuesday.
The county entered its “red” COVID-19 risk level, the highest on its colored-coded scale, on July 19. Officials said for that reason, everyone — including employees and the public — will be required to wear a face covering and observe social distancing rules in public areas of the building.
Judges have the discretion to remove the mask mandate in individual courtrooms, officials said. The Williamson County Local Health Authority recommended the mask mandate.
“Their guidance is that the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19 is through vaccination and that, beyond vaccination, the best way to further mitigate risk is through face covering and social distancing,” the county said.
“I don’t have a problem wearing my mask,” said Lorie Johnson. “I have never stopped wearing my mask.”
Johnson said this as she entered the Justice Center early Tuesday morning.
“I have been fully vaccinated, but I also have underlying health issues,” said Johnson. “The extra precaution isn’t going to hurt anyone or anything.”
Beyond vaccination, Williamson County’s Director of Administration for District Courts told KXAN the mask requirement is the best way to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“The courts in Williamson County have not closed since the pandemic started,” said Ronald S. Morgan, Jr. “Since January of this year, we have resolved over 6,000 cases in this building. We are holding our 14th jury trial in this building. The judges are focused on making sure that progress does not stop.”
County officials said they are aware of Gov. Greg Abbott’s most recent executive order that doesn’t allow government entities to enforce a mask mandate, but they say the judicial system is a separate branch of government and an emergency order by the Texas Supreme Court applies.
“We are aware of the Governor’s recent order regarding mask mandates and Governor Abbott‘s executive orders have been considered in making these very important decisions,” officials said. “The Supreme Court of Texas has general responsibility for the efficient administration of the Texas judicial system and the authority to make rules of administration applicable to the courts.”
The 40th emergency order by Texas’ high court says courts in Texas, “encouraged to adopt minimum standard health protocols for court participants and the public attending court proceedings that will be employed in the courtroom and in public areas of the court building.”
Wilco officials also cited an opinion by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that says, “judges possess broad inherent authority to control orderly proceedings in their courtrooms, and pursuant to that authority, they can require individuals in the courtroom to wear facial coverings.”
County officials said the courts have been active during the COVID-19 pandemic and that 14 juries have been seated since March. Two more juries are expected to be selected in the next two weeks, as well.
“The Court community is focused on ensuring that we continue to provide access to the justice system to our community,” county officials said. “We ask our community to do all it can to stay healthy and stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Gov. Greg Abbott did not answer KXAN’s request for comment on Williamson County’s decision.
Williamson County says it will continue to require masks inside the courthouse until COVID-19 cases come down. Courthouses in Dallas and Bexar Counties have also instituted similar mandates.