This story has been updated throughout with more details from the Dallas County Commissioners Court meeting.
In its first meeting in about a month, four members of the Dallas County Commissioners Court showed up to work wearing a mask. One did not.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins told his colleagues Tuesday morningthat they’d be required to wear masks during the meeting. He made the decision after consulting with local doctors to address growing concerns over skyrocketing COVID-19 cases driven by the contagious delta variant.
Commissioner J.J. Koch said it was an overstep of the judge’s authority and refused to mask up.
A half-hour into the meeting, and at Jenkins’ direction, a bailiff escorted Koch off the dais.
The political showdown is rooted in a growing conflict across Texas, pitting public health concerns against those of personal liberty. Some feel whiplashed by changing medical advice — necessary due to spiking cases and lagging vaccination rates — and others are unsure of whom to trust.
Koch’s attorneys said he planned to sue Jenkins over the removal, and that he should follow rules set by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
“What he wants to do is misrepresent the law,” said Koch, a Republican who represents northern Dallas County, including Carrollton, Farmers Branch, parts of Richardson and the Park Cities. “This is in keeping with how he acts. He asks forgiveness, not permission.”
Last week, Abbott issued an executive order that doubled down on banning government officials from requiring masks in public places and it prevented vaccine mandates, including in schools and hospitals. It also bars county judges from imposing their own coronavirus restrictions. This comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines last week to say that vaccinated people should mask up indoors to protect against COVID-19.
On Tuesday, the county reported a three-day total of 2,132 new cases of COVID-19, a 145% jump since last week. While new data shows that unvaccinated and vaccinated people can be equally contagious with the delta variant, health officials say vaccines are still extremely effective in preventing hospitalizations and death.
Jenkins, a Democrat, said his decision to require masks at the meeting was based on a Texas Supreme Court order that gives judges power to take measures to protect people in their courtrooms. On Monday, other Dallas County judges said they’d require masks in the courthouse, in line with the judicial branch order.
Jenkins is not a judge in the judicial sense. The county judge title comes from Texas’ roots as an independent nation, when county officials had both judicial and executive responsibilities. Today, Jenkins leads the commissioners court and oversees emergency management, among other executive responsibilities.
“My enemy is the virus, not each other,” Jenkins said in a prepared statement after the meeting. “My actions requiring masks in the courtroom are authorized by the Texas Supreme Court and are intended by me to keep people safe in accordance with the CDC guidelines.”
Threat level expected to rise
The county may return to a red threat level of “stay home, stay safe,” Jenkins said, but doctors are still considering what that would mean. Threat levels were defined before vaccines were available, so the guidance should change, he said.
“It’s just an evolving situation,” Jenkins said. “In my courtroom, I want to endeavor to keep you safe.”
The more-contagious delta variant is causing concern for the county’s health department and is leading to changes locally and nationally, Philip Huang, the county’s health director, said at the commissioners court meeting.
“It’s an extremely serious situation,” Huang said. “The reason why the guidance changed is because of the delta variant that has become the dominant strain.”
UT Southwestern Medical Center forecasts that Dallas and Tarrant counties are expected to report at least 1,500 coronavirus cases a day by Aug. 19.
In North Texas, 1,714 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19, Huang said, compared to only 384 patients at the beginning of July, according to state data. The vast majority are unvaccinated.
After closing the vaccine hub at Fair Park in July, Huang said, the county will resume clinics every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Sept. 18, just before the start of the State Fair of Texas.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners approved spending up to $255,000 to buy tickets to the State Fair or Six Flags Over Texas as incentives for people to get vaccinated.
The county’s health department has expanded efforts to make the vaccine more available in communities where vaccination rates have slowed. Teams are going door-to-door to tell people about clinics, and shots are being distributed at back-to-school fairs and other community events.
Refusal to vote
After briefly going into an executive session at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, Jenkins told the commissioners — namely Koch — that they had until 9:30 a.m. to mask up or tune into the meeting virtually from another room. The other four commissioners, including Jenkins, were already masked when the meeting began.
“Commissioner Koch,” he asked after the 9:30 deadline, “you refuse to wear a mask?”
“Yep,” Koch said. “You do not have the authority under the governor’s order.”
Jenkins asked the bailiff to remove Koch, who collected his belongings and left. The bailiff escorted him from the dais to another room.
Commissioners paused for nearly an hour while he attempted to get the virtual meeting to work from his office nearby. When the connection resumed and Jenkins called for votes on the next agenda item, Koch said he could not effectively participate in the meeting remotely.
“Right now you’re in violation of the governor’s order,” he said through his video feed.
Koch said although he wished to vote, he didn’t feel comfortable doing so. He said he had hired a law firm to file a temporary restraining order to stop the court from continuing proceedings without him physically present. Late Tuesday, attorneys representing Koch said they planned to file suit against Jenkins on Wednesday morning.
“Obviously you’re welcome here if you comply with the order to wear a mask,” Jenkins said.
Koch said in a phone interview later that he had a mask in his pocket during the meeting but argued that Jenkins overstepped his authority by requiring that he wear it.
Whenever Jenkins called on him, Koch would reiterate that because the meeting was a “non-judicial function,” Koch believed the mandate was inappropriate. He requested multiple times for Jenkins — who Koch said was “acting as supreme dictator in this court” — to lift the mandate and allow him to rejoin without a mask.
“You clearly expressed your authority to impose a face-covering requirement for an elected official outside of the governor’s order,” Koch said.
“We’ll take that all under advisement,” Jenkins said, moving on to the next agenda item.
Koch later asked to adjourn the meeting until another court could rule on the matter, and made a motion to recess until Wednesday.
The court, instead, continued its business.