After attorney general challenges local stay-home orders, here is what is required in Austin

Photo by John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper. Design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper.
Photo by John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper. Design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper.

Photo by John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper. Design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper.

On May 12, Attorney General Ken Paxton's office sent a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt alleging that some elements of the local orders mandating Austin residents to stay home are illegal because they "exceed the city and county's lawful authority."

In the course of one week from May 6-12, new orders passed at the state, county and city level giving guidance to Texas residents on what they should do to prevent the spread of the coronavirus; and additional businesses have been allowed to open at a limited capacity. On May 18, even more businesses will be allowed to open, although orders from the state, city and county will all remain in effect.

"Everyone's a little confused; I completely understand," Eckhardt said in a press conference May 8. "That’s the reason the mayor and I felt it was important to put out these orders to clearly state, yes, the governor’s orders are controlling, but the recommendations of your public health professionals have not changed."

Those recommendations include wearing a face covering when going out in public to stop carriers of the virus who are not showing symptoms from spreading to others, limiting trips out when possible to limit contact with others and maintaining 6 feet of distance from other individuals.

What orders are in place right now?

The governor passed an order May 6 that directs Texans to minimize social gatherings and in-person contact with people who are not in the same household in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Further, the order says Texans over the age of 65 are "strongly encouraged" to stay at home as much as possible.

Abbott's order, which is in effect through May 19, also lays out which businesses can reopen in Texas and when. Restaurants, barbershops, hair salons, swimming pools and other businesses already have been allowed to open at a limited capacity. On May 18, offices will be able to open with limits, along with manufacturing services, gyms and exercise facilities. Bars and tattoo parlors are among the businesses that are not allowed to open in any capacity.

On May 8, the city and county passed their own orders. The city's is in effect through May 30, while the county's expires June 15. Adler repeated that the city is "joining with" the governor in those recommendations at the May 8 press conference, yet the letter from Paxton describes the city orders as "Orwellian."

Where does the state disagree with the city and the county?

The letter from Paxton's office challenges some specific parts of the city and county's orders, including the city's recommendation for restaurants to perform contact-tracing and the language around houses of worship.

The state is taking issue with the city and county's stance to order compliance with measures such as wearing face coverings and sheltering in place, but local governments argue that even though they believe now is not the time to let up on social distancing measures, their orders are in lockstep with the state.

"We trust you will act quickly to correct mistakes like these to avoid further confusion and litigation challenging the county's and city's unconstitutional and unlawful restrictions," Paxton's office wrote.

After the letter was sent May 12, Adler fired back in a statement.

“Up to this point, we have avoided the naked politicization of the virus crisis. I will not follow the AG down that road," he said. "The City’s Order complements, incorporates, and does not conflict with the Governor’s Order. We will continue working to keep our community safe to the fullest extent allowed by law.”

Do I still have to stay home? Do I have to wear a face mask?

The disagreement between city and state elected officials is not about whether protective measures such as staying home when possible and wearing masks are effective. Abbott, Adler, Eckhardt and public health officials all agree those measures Texans have taken have helped slow the spread of the virus.

However, after Dallas business owner Shelley Luther was sentenced to seven days in jail for operating her salon in a violation of shelter-in-place orders, Abbott modified his orders to take out any fines or jail time for residents violating the orders.

“Compliance with executive orders during this pandemic is important to ensure public safety; however, surely there are less restrictive means to achieving that goal than jailing a Texas mother," Abbott said after making the change.

While there will be no jail time or fines for residents who do not wear masks or adhere to social distancing guidelines under Abbott's guidance, those residents may be turned away from a local business if they do not adhere to the rules set by the business owners.

While restaurant owners, barbers and salon owners have wrestled with the decision of whether to open, the ones who have decided to open are putting significant safety measures in place to keep customers and employees safe.

"We're going to open, but we have to be smart about it," said Scott Ma, owner of Lavish Nails and Spa, ahead of his opening May 8.

Even before fines and jail time were stripped away as enforcement measures, local officials have maintained that the only way to truly slow the spread of the coronavirus is if the community buys in and willingly adheres to public health officials' recommendations.

Now, those self-policing measures have become even more critical, according to Adler.

"The penalty now is more people will get sick, and some of them will die if we’re not wearing face masks. That ought to be penalty enough," he said.