‘Contempt’: Texas AG Ken Paxton sues City of Austin, Mayor Adler and others over COVID-19 restriction order

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Wednesday afternoon, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton threatened Austin Mayor Steve Adler with legal action if the city’s new order placing restrictions on restaurant operations over the New Year weren’t pulled back.

And on Wednesday evening, Paxton did it.

The order stops dine-in and beverage services at restaurants and bars beginning at 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. from Dec. 31 through Sunday, Jan. 3. The city is strongly encouraging restaurants to offer only drive-thru, curbside pick-up, take-out or delivery services between 6 a.m. and 10:30 p.m.

But Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says Austin doesn’t have the authority to do this.

Immediately after Adler — along with Travis County Judge Andy Brown and Austin’s top physician, Dr. Mark Escott — made the announcement, Abbott slammed the order, tweeting: “This shutdown order by Austin isn’t allowed. Period. My executive order stops cities like Austin from arbitrarily shutting down businesses. The city has a responsibility to enforce existing orders, not make new ones.”

Now, Paxton is taking action, with the promise to move even further.

In a letter on Wednesday, Paxton said the order violates Abbott’s previous mandates and directed both Adler and Brown to rescind or modify the order.

Paxton offered a time slot Wednesday afternoon for the group to meet to continue to discussions, otherwise, he warned, “I, on behalf of the State of Texas, will take legal action against you.”

Then, on Wednesday evening, the AG’s Office announced he filed a petition for temporary injunction and temporary restraining order in Travis County to stop the order’s enforcement.

In the statement, Paxton said:

“The fact that these two local leaders released their orders at night and on the eve of a major holiday shows how much contempt they have for Texans and local businesses. They think breaking the law is a game of running the clock before anyone can do anything about it. Texas is a law-and-order state, and these are lives and livelihoods that are at stake. I’ll continue to defend them against the arbitrariness of the mayor and county judge.”

Texas AG Ken Paxton

In an interview with KXAN on Wednesday night, Adler responded to Paxton’s filed petition, and he says he’s prepared to defend the city and Travis County in court.

“We’re going to defend it in court. We hope that we win… if we don’t win I want to remind the community that just because the government says you can do things that make the community less safe doesn’t mean you have to do them.”

Adler said he has no plans to rescind the order.

Travis County said it had received the letter and is reviewing it with the County Attorney’s office.

Both El Paso and Bexar counties instituted curfews over holidays earlier this year, but did not receive the same kind of pushback from the governor.

On Tuesday, Adler said, “I don’t call this a curfew, because in my mind, that gives rise to a lot of things that are much broader than the order we have here. We are not restricting people’s movements, their ability to be able to travel around, their ability to go to the drug store or the grocery store if you’re out at night. So I think what is more descriptive is, kind of just the modification of operations for restaurants; I think that’s probably the most apt description.”

Meanwhile, Abbott and Paxton aren’t alone in their criticisms, with Texas Republican Chip Roy urging residents on Wednesday to ignore the order.

The Texas Restaurant Association released a statement supporting both Abbott and Paxton for “defending Austin restaurants.”

The association argues restaurants are doing all they can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — and claims restrictions around eateries are “not rooted in data” and unlikely to decrease numbers.

“Closing indoor dining will not prevent holiday celebrations; it will simply move them from highly regulated businesses into completely unregulated spaces at a critical time in our COVID-19 response,” the association writes. “The public is exhausted and confused, and it’s past time that our leaders stop looking for scapegoats and rally around those prevention strategies that we know work like wearing a mask, social distancing and avoiding unregulated gatherings.”

Austin Talley, who operates Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Icehouse, says the business will not be changing its operations for New Year’s Eve. He tells KXAN customers will be able to dine in safely there.

“We’re having to make up the revenue for the months that we were closed,” said Talley. “The government is not the end-all be-all salvation of our community.”

New Year’s Eve can be a lucrative night for bars and restaurants. Talley says larger bars can make up to $200,000.

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