Last updated: Aug. 10, 2021
The information contained in this Know Your Rights content is subject to change as state and local governments respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please check the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) coronavirus information page for updates about the virus and current statewide restrictions, as well as information from your local health department.
This content is intended to serve as general information; it is not legal advice nor intended as legal advice.
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists across Texas and the entire country, it has prompted local, state, and federal governments to respond in order to protect public health. The ACLU of Texas urges everyone to read and follow their local and state public health orders for the sake of their own wellbeing and the safety of the entire community.
Learn more below about what your rights are and how to protect them during this public health crisis.
What public health orders are currently in effect in Texas?
Governor Greg Abbott lifted almost all of the restrictions on Texas residents and businesses related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under Executive Order GA-38, which went into effect July 29, 2021, there are no more occupancy limits on businesses in most parts of the state, and wearing a mask or face covering cannot be required by any state or local government. However, in areas with high transmission of COVID-19, “individuals are encouraged to follow safe practices . . . such as wearing face coverings over the nose and mouth wherever it is not feasible to maintain six feet of social distance from a person not in the same household.”
This executive order replaces Abbott’s previous restrictions related to COVID-19, and it supersedes most city and county restrictions. However, Texas law does not supersede federal law, and wearing a mask is still required on federal property and when traveling on public transportation. Public schools and other local government agencies must follow the guidance set by their governing bodies, as well as the state and federal government.
Can businesses, schools and other public places require vaccines?
The latest executive order prohibits public schools and local governments from mandating or requiring people to receive COVID-19 vaccines that are under “emergency use authorization.” Private entities that receive funding from the state are also barred from asking for vaccine documentation for any consumer to receive a service or enter a place of business. This order does not restrict schools, local governments, or businesses from providing or requiring COVID-19 testing, nor does it address whether vaccines can be required once they are fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Can businesses, schools and other public places still require masks?
The latest executive order allows private businesses to require people to wear masks and follow safety measures like social distancing. In the same way that customers may be required to wear shoes and a shirt to receive service, businesses can ask customers to wear masks for the safety of their employees and other customers. If a customer refuses to wear a mask, the business can ask that person to leave. And if that person does not comply, they could be subject to civil or criminal penalties for trespass, which can result in a Class B misdemeanor that is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Local governments and school districts are currently prohibited by the latest executive order from imposing mask requirements.
Is Abbott’s latest executive order constitutional?
There are currently several lawsuits challenging the most recent executive order as unconstitutional and claiming that it exceeds the governor’s authority under the Texas Disaster Act. Several Texas school districts have indicated they are still planning to require that students wear masks in schools to protect the health and safety of students, staff, and their families. It is not yet clear how these legal challenges will turn out.
Are mask orders constitutional?
Likely, yes. Although there have been lawsuits challenging certain provisions of mask orders, most courts have upheld their constitutionality because state and local governments have authority to provide for public health, welfare and safety.
Do I still have a right to protest during this pandemic?
Yes, your right to peacefully assemble, protest and petition the government are essential constitutional rights that do not disappear during a pandemic. While state and local governments may impose reasonable restrictions on the time, manner and means of a protest, they cannot ban protests entirely, especially when some gatherings are still permitted across the state.
You can also find additional Know Your Rights information on Free Speech and the Right to Protest by clicking here.