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 coronavirus information page for information about the virus and current statewide restrictions, as well as information from your local health department. You can also find additional Know Your Rights information on Free Speech and the Right to Protest by clicking here.
This content is intended to serve as general information; it is not legal advice nor intended as legal advice.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads rapidly across Texas and the entire country, it has prompted local, state, and federal governments to respond in order to protect public health. This includes implementing orders that require people to stay at home and/or wear a mask or face covering as ways to help slow the spread of this deadly virus. But in the U.S., these orders do not trump all of your constitutional rights.
The ACLU of Texas urges everyone to read and follow their local and state public health orders for the sake of their own well-being and the safety of the entire community. Learn more about what your rights are, and how to protect them, even during a public health crisis.
What are stay-home and mask orders?
Many cities and counties across the country, as well as here in Texas, have put into place various stay-home and mask orders to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dozens of counties in Texas have enacted such orders so far. The governor, the Texas Supreme Court, and various governmental agencies have also sent out rules and guidance to respond to this public health emergency.
Am I required to follow stay-home and mask orders related to COVID-19?
Generally yes. The Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the State of Texas and local governments authority to respond to emergencies, including pandemics. Once the governor and local governments declare a state of emergency, they may create emergency management plans that control the movement of people when it is “necessary for the preservation of life or other disaster mitigation.” Remember, most emergency plans that have been implemented are grounded in guidance from public health experts and designed to save lives.
As of May 7, Governor Abbott suspended the use of jail time as a punishment for violating any stay-home or mask order, but state and local governments may be able to fine businesses and individuals that violate such orders.
Am I required to wear a mask in Texas?
On July 2, Governor Abbott issued Executive Order GA-29 requiring face coverings over the nose and mouth when people in Texas are inside a building or space open to the public, or when outside and not able to maintain six feet of social distance from someone. This order contains a list of exceptions, including for people who have a medical condition preventing them from wearing a face covering, people who are exercising outdoors while social distancing, and people who are voting or attending a religious service. Anyone who violates this order must first be given a verbal or written warning, but all future violations may then be subject to a fine not to exceed $250 per violation.
Are stay-home and mask orders constitutional?
Likely, yes. Although there are pending lawsuits challenging certain provisions of stay-home orders, most courts have so far upheld their constitutionality when they are based on guidance from public health experts and not implemented in arbitrary or discriminatory ways.
However, the government's power is not unlimited; you still have constitutional rights under these types of orders. The U.S. Supreme Court tells us as much, stating that the Constitution still applies even in times of crisis. As governments respond to this public health crisis, the measures they take to protect public health can still be examined in court and cannot be used to suppress free expression or your constitutional rights.
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. As of June 26, Executive Order GA-28 allows for people in Texas to gather for religious services, child-care, and recreational sports programs with no occupancy limit; and for people to attend water parks, sporting events, and rodeos with 50% capacity. Although this order does not contain an explicit carve-out for protests, it would be unconstitutional content discrimination for any government official to shut down a protest, and other First Amendment protected activity, while still allowing other gatherings to take place.
Even though you have a right to protest during this pandemic, the ACLU of Texas urges you to do so safely by engaging in social distancing, wearing masks, organizing a car protest, or utilizing other creative approaches. You can also find additional Know Your Rights information on Free Speech and the Right to Protest by clicking here.
May I leave my house during this pandemic?
Some stay-home orders in Texas require you to stay at your place of residence whenever possible. But each order also contains numerous exceptions that allow you to leave your home under certain circumstances. It is very important that you read your own local order to determine which exceptions apply.
Do I need a letter from my employer if I work in an essential business?
No. Although some employers are giving their employees letters to say that they work at an essential business these letters are not required by any current stay-home order. There is no show-me-your-papers rule requiring you to carry documentation or provide any proof about who you are or where you work.
What if I am stopped by the police while I am outside of my home?
Stay calm and remember that you have rights. You have a right to remain silent and you also have a right to film the police. Learn more details about your rights when interacting with law enforcement with our other Know Your Rights materials:
Can I be arrested or jailed for violating these orders?
No. Although the Texas Disaster Act allows for enforcement of emergency plans with up to a $1,000 fine or six months of jail time, the governor has prohibited the use of jail time in all state-wide executive orders, which also means that cities and counties cannot use jail time as a punishment for violating these orders. While fines may be imposed against businesses and individuals that violate public health orders, the ACLU of Texas urges all police officers, sheriffs, and other government officials to first educate the public and warn people about this public health crisis — and only use fines as an absolute last resort, since they exacerbate the economic fallout from COVID-19.
What if I am experiencing homelessness and do not have a place to stay?
Most cities and counties with stay-home orders have an explicit exemption for individuals experiencing homelessness. If you do not have a place to stay during this pandemic, you should not be criminalized or punished for failing to stay at home. Instead, you should try to practice social distancing as best you can and try seeking shelter or assistance from a local government or nonprofit in your area. To find homelessness service providers visit the Texas Homelessness Network website.