Denton City Hall

Denton City Council members extended their declaration of disaster until June 30 and debated whether to defy Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's order to lift the mask mandate.

To continue receiving money to fight the pandemic, Denton City Council members on Tuesday unanimously extended the city’s disaster declaration.

“It is a prerequisite for state and federal funding,” Chief of Staff Sarah Kuechler said. “We’ve done a number of these through the pandemic. Underneath the 11th Order of Council, there is a spending limit authority of $3.25 million. We are proposing to increase that … to $3.5 million.”

The 11th order was scheduled to expire on March 31. Meanwhile, the city has created three signs businesses may post on their doors if they require customers to wear masks. And Denton officials encourage business owners to do that and to continue to post their health and safety plans — although they are not required to do so under Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to reopen Texas.

“We continue to recommend this be done at a local level,” Kuechler said.

On March 2, Abbott issued the order that allows Texas businesses to reopen at 100% capacity and lifts the statewide mask ordinance. It went into effect March 10, superseding Denton’s 11th Order of Council, which required businesses here to maintain and post health and safety plans.

Abbott’s order also prohibits cities and counties from adopting ordinances requiring wearing face coverings. The city of Denton did not have such an ordinance. Still, some stores here have posted signs that tell customers the municipality requires them to wear masks.

That issue was raised during the meeting on Tuesday, when council members Paul Meltzer and Deb Armintor asked about following the city of Austin’s lead in its pushback against Abbott’s order. Austin and Travis County are continuing to require masks to be worn in public through at least late March. The Texas Attorney General’s Office has filed a lawsuit against Travis County and Austin officials, according to published reports, for refusing to comply with the governor’s order.

“If it’s not unconstitutional to try to do along the lines what Austin has done … I would be interested in certainly opposing any stay against enacting it,” Meltzer said.

That comment came after Denton City Attorney Aaron Leal warned that any effort by Denton to adopt an ordinance that creates a mask mandate would immediately be challenged by the attorney general’s office, saying that the city would be sued and would likely be prohibited by an Austin judge from enforcing the ordinance during litigation.

“The [governor’s] order is currently as it stands,” Leal said. “It is a binding order on the city. You can certainly follow what the city of Austin has done. That would be your call. If you want to proceed in that direction, four of you need to direct Kuechler … to start that process.”

But on Tuesday, that didn’t happen.

As for Armintor, she said she continues to follow how Austin officials are responding to Abbott’s order to reopen Texas. She also asked Denton Police Chief Frank Dixon and Kuechler how complaints from businesses would be handled if they require customers to wear masks but a person refuses.

“That is a tool but it would be the last resort,” Kuechler said of asking police to have someone trespassed. “We ask stores to have enforcement strategies. If they need additional assistance … police officers’ primary objective would be education. If need be, if that were not successful, the business owner could decide to have that person criminal-trespassed.”

Dixon agreed.

“It’s not really who has the greater right of possession,” he said. “The manager, owner or whoever who is left in charge would be legally able to issue a criminal trespass” warning.

Mayor Gerard Hudspeth also asked about the consequences of adopting an ordinance that defies the governor’s order, and Leal again cautioned doing that.

“If I’m the AG’s office, I would sue the city,” Leal said. “We would hire outside counsel, and we would have our share of legal costs as part of that lawsuit.”

Houston, San Antonio and Round Rock require people to wear masks in city buildings until April 29, according to published reports. In Denton, residents must wear masks before they enter city property. It is unclear when that mandate will end, and City Council members will continue to meet virtually indefinitely.

PAUL BRYANT can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @paulbryant_DRC.

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