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Austin Mayor Backs Schools Plan To Require Masks, Despite Governor's Ban On Mandates

NOEL KING, HOST:

Texans are in a tug of war over who can mandate what. COVID cases are rising there. Hospitalizations are, too. But Governor Greg Abbott says local governments cannot institute mask mandates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: Kids will not be forced by government or by schools to wear masks in school.

KING: However, judges overruled him on that in Dallas County and in Bexar County after they sued him. Local officials in those counties can require masks in schools for now. And in other places, including Austin, school districts are also putting mask mandates in place. Steve Adler is the mayor of Austin. He's with us now. Good morning, Mayor Adler.

STEVE ADLER: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What do you think of the decision by the school district in Austin to require masks for both teachers and students?

ADLER: I think it was the appropriate decision. Based on the doctors and the data, the answer's pretty clear that we keep our children the most safe if people are masking in the schools. And that's what our community wants to have happen.

KING: And yet the governor has put a ban on schools, counties, cities, public health authorities putting mask mandates in place. So the school district essentially is going up against the governor here. Talk to me about the calculation there and how you see this playing out. Are you going to sue as well?

ADLER: I would anticipate that both the city and the county and the health authority will probably join and issue orders to mandate masking in schools in order to be able to support this action, have as much legal basis as we can have in order to be able to support it. I think that at this moment, at this time, with the delta virus so out of control, we should be doing everything we can to help protect our kids. We've been in court twice with the governor so far this year, won both times at the district court level. The Supreme Court hasn't weighed in yet. But regardless, we have to do everything we can to protect our kids and to send a message to the community as clearly and unambiguously as we can that masking actually works, and that's what we need to do.

KING: I know that you're the mayor and not an educator, but I wonder, are you talking to the parents of children? And are any of them expressing concern about the mask mandate? Are any parents saying, I don't want my kid to go to school and wear a mask?

ADLER: Well, certainly in a large community, you can find different people saying different things on all issues and points of view. But the parents that I talk to and see reacting, there's overwhelming support for local communities being able to make these decisions themselves.

KING: How are families feeling about the vaccine? Are you hearing from parents who want their kids, especially their teenagers, who can get it, to be able to get it? Are you hearing from parents who don't want their children to get the vaccine? What would you say the temperature of people there is?

ADLER: I think for most people, they're real anxious to have approval of a vaccine that children at the younger ages are able to take. I think that they have seen that almost everyone in our hospitals are unvaccinated. Virtually everybody in our intensive care unit's unvaccinated. And they're eager to be able to get this protection for their children. It is not universal, and that's part of the problem that we're having today in our city and across the country, where there are just too many people who are hesitant and not taking the vaccine. It's real clear if there was a way for us to fix that - and we're working as hard as we can, literally going door to door. That is the long-term answer. And the short-term answer is for people to be wearing masks.

KING: You recently asked Austin residents to start putting masks on again. That was in response to this surge that we're seeing because of the delta variant. You did not mandate, as I understand it, that people in the city wear masks. What is it like in Austin now? Talk to me about how your hospital resources are doing, how your doctors are doing.

ADLER: Our doctors and nurses are absolutely exhausted, both physically and emotionally. I don't think anybody thought we would be back here again. This time, it's different. Last time, the virus was the enemy, and this time, the enemy is our - the status quo and our failure to vaccinate ourselves. Hospitals are full. We're down to very few, if any, intensive care unit beds. We have the physical space, but there's just not the staffing this year that there was even last year. So we're real stressed.

KING: And in the worst-case scenario, schools reopen, kids go back. They're interacting with each other more. Everyone is wearing a mask that's been mandated, but you have a rise in cases. That's one possibility. I wonder, are you concerned that opening the schools again is going to further strain the city's health resources?

ADLER: There is always that concern. But again, the political and elected officials here are being guided by the doctors and the data. And the advice that we're seeing coming out of the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics and our own local health authority is that when you weigh the advantages and the disadvantages and all of the risks, that the appropriate thing to have happen is children that are not choosing to be educated at home - that it's OK for children to be in school so long as everyone's masked. That's students and teachers and guests - everyone.

KING: Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, Texas, thank you for joining us. We appreciate your time.

ADLER: Noel, take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.