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.
By Jack Flagler
Jack is the editor of Community Impact Newspaper's Central Austin and Southwest Austin editions. He began his career as a sports reporter in Massachusetts and North Carolina before moving to Austin in 2018. He grew up in Maine and graduated from Boston University, but prefers tacos al pastor to lobster rolls. You can get in touch at jflagler@communityimpact.com


MOST RECENT

Photo of a girl weariing a mask and backpack
Austin ISD: mask policy to remain after new CDC guidance

The district said it would continue to require masks at least through the end of the current school year.

I-35 delays
Early morning I-35 delays expected May 15 as TxDOT finishes demolition of US 183 ramp in North Austin

TxDOT will close mainlanes on I-35 in North Austin early in the morning of May 15 as it demolishes a ramp.

The city of Austin's Smart Mobility Office has partnered with Ford on self-driving vehicle initiatives. (Courtesy Ford Motor Company)
Austin's transportation department paving the way for rise in autonomous vehicle traffic

Several private companies are working on autonomous vehicle initiatives in Austin in addition to the city's own smart infrastructure planning.

Goodfolks plans to open in late July to early August. (Ali Linan/Community Impact Newspaper)
New restaurant coming to Georgetown; new Hutto community to have nearly 1K lots and more top Central Texas news

Read the top business and community news from the past week from Central Texas.

COVID-19 precautions such as a masking requirement remain in place at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (Courtesy Austin-Bergstrom International Airport)
'Signs of hope' on the horizon at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport after year-plus dip in air travel

Rising passenger counts, new airline operations and an increase in vaccinations could all support the airport's recovery in 2021.

A University of Texas office tower is under development at the downtown Central Health site formerly home to the Brackenridge hospital campus. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Central Health's 'cornerstone' downtown site moving forward on path to redevelopment

Much of the site's future scope is yet to be determined ahead of a May 20 rezoning hearing before City Council.

Photo of a man climbing on a rock wall
Four Austin institutions celebrate anniversaries

Crux Climbing Center and Austin Vet Hospital are among the businesses hitting milestones in May.

Capital Metro bus
Capital Metro announces increased transit services for Austin FC games this season

Capital Metro has increased the frequency of several bus routes for Austin FC game days at Q2 Stadium.

masks
CDC ends all mask requirements for fully vaccinated people

The guidance states fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks indoors or outdoors.

The property has been a redevelopment and neighborhood revitalization target for years. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin evaluating 6 plans to redevelop 19-acre St. John site into mixed-use district

The city has long been seeking to rejuvenate the St. John neighborhood property off I-35 with new housing, retail and recreational space.