Struggle Over Mask Mandates Reaches Dallas Commissioners Court

J.J. Koch says he intends to file a lawsuit challenging Dallas County Clay Jenkins' mask mandate.
J.J. Koch says he intends to file a lawsuit challenging Dallas County Clay Jenkins' mask mandate. Screenshot via Dallas County Commissioners Court livestream
On Tuesday, the battle over mask mandates reached the Dallas County Commissioners Court. When Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins announced that everyone attending was required to wear a mask, Commissioner J.J. Koch refused to put on a face covering.

Ahead of the session, Koch, a Republican who represents District 2, took his seat next to Jenkins. Along with a few members of the audience, Koch wasn't wearing a mask. Eventually, a bailiff escorted Koch from the room.

Before the meeting started, Jenkins announced the mask mandate in the commissioners' chamber, citing the “evolving situation with the Delta [variant] virus [and] the recommendations of the CDC" as well as a conversation he'd had with medical experts at UT Southwestern.

But Koch didn’t agree with the judge’s decision. He asked whether it was legal to require masks. Gov. Greg Abbott, he said, had stripped “the power of local governments from requiring masks in their buildings.”

Last Thursday, Abbott issued executive order GA-38, which bars local governments and state agencies from imposing mask and vaccination mandates at a time when the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus has picked up steam around the country.

In recent weeks, Dallas County has seen a spike in COVID-19 infections. On Monday, the county recorded more than 400 new cases.

On Friday, though, Administrative District Judge Maricela Moore ordered that anyone who enters a Dallas county courthouse must don a mask, WFAA reports.

Meanwhile, the battle over mask requirements has cropped up around Texas. As educators call for students and staff to be required to wear a face-covering in schools, for instance, Republican lawmakers have forbidden such mandates.

The governor has threatened to fine local officials and businesses that require masks. “Texans have mastered the safe practices that help to prevent and avoid the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said in a statement.

Speaking to Koch, Jenkins replied, “The authority, by the way, is under Supreme Court order, authority as this is a courtroom, not under GA-38.”

“Well,” Koch said, “that’s going to be an interesting interpretation.”

Jenkins adjourned the meeting, adding: “I certainly don’t want to exclude any court members from our session. If we have a court member or a staff member who feels strongly that they just should not wear a mask, then we have a virtual option for them.”

Asked whether he’d reconsider the mask, Koch got heated. “You do not have the authority under the governor’s order,” he said. “In fact, this morning I went to Starbucks, and I have a mask.”

Koch accused Jenkins of being “abusive of [his] power” and “condescending.”

Jenkins offered Koch a chance to attend the meeting virtually and asked the bailiff to clear the courtroom of anyone not wearing a mask. With that, Koch left.

"On that, the enemy is the virus. It’s not each other." - Clay Jenkins, Dallas County Judge

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Speaking to the Observer, Jenkins said his “actions were calculated to comply with CDC and doctor recommendations to keep the people that must come to our courtroom safe.”

“On that, the enemy is the virus: It’s not each other,” he added.

Koch, though, says the incident “is not so much about masking” and insists that he would’ve put on a mask had Jenkins not “misrepresented his authority.”

"You can not like the governor's order,” he said. “But when you intentionally misrepresent your authority? No way. I hate the fact that I'm dying on the hill regarding masks, but the thing is, the judge has been doing this type of thing so often."

Koch said he wore a mask during previous meetings and earlier in the day when he went to Starbucks. He and his wife have been vaccinated, and he encourages his constituents to get the jab, he added.

“I'm certainly not one of the hair-on-fire folks that believes in the tinfoil hat stuff,” he said. “But we have a rule of law in society, and you've got to follow those rules. You have to be earnest about your authority."

Explaining that he intends to challenge the judge’s mask mandate with a lawsuit, Koch said, "I am not at all dying for this fight. This is not at all what I wanted to do today."

Late last month, the CDC partially reversed its previous guidance. The center now urges vaccinated people to “wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.”

Additional reporting by Simone Carter
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Patrick Strickland is the news editor at the Dallas Observer. He's a former senior reporter at Al Jazeera English and has reported for the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Politico EU and The New Republic, among others.