Austin’s new law: Follow health authority rules or face $2,000 penalty

An employee at Terry Black's Barbecue in Austin works in a mask May 1. (John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper)
An employee at Terry Black's Barbecue in Austin works in a mask May 1. (John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper)

An employee at Terry Black's Barbecue in Austin works in a mask May 1. (John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper)

Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County interim health authority, will issue a fresh set of public safety orders in the coming days that will be enforceable by a $2,000 fine after Austin City Council unanimously passed a new law.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he expects Escott’s orders to align with his own order, which mandates individuals wear face coverings indoors as well as outdoors when social distancing is not possible, maintain social distance of six feet from others and refrain from gathering in groups of more than 10 people.

City Council’s action on July 9 did not set mask rules in itself. Instead, it gave full authority to Escott, who has led the city and county health department’s response to pandemic. Although Escott’s rules are not published yet, Adler said he does not expect the policy to deviate or go further than the order he issued July 2.

Austin has been encouraging face coverings, social distancing and limited group sizes for months but has struggled to gain mass compliance due to legal obstacles in enforcement. That changed when Gov. Greg Abbott on July 2 issued a mandatory mask order for Texans living in counties with more than 20 confirmed coronavirus cases. Abbott had refrained from issuing such an order for months, maintaining it was out of bounds for government.

Ahead of City Council’s July 9 decision to pass a law to give teeth to Escott’s orders, Abbott sent a letter to Adler expressing support for the strategy, calling it crucial to slowing the spread of the virus.

“As you know, these orders were created and adopted based on advice from medical experts, and if these orders are followed, we will be able to protect both public health and the livelihoods of our citizens,” Abbott wrote. “Taking steps to ensure compliance with these orders, as the city is contemplating, is necessary to protect public health and safety and will reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

City Council also passed a law that would allow the city to file suit against and declare as a public nuisance any business, commercial or construction site that does not enforce face mask, cleaning, gathering and social distance requirements.

Council Member Greg Casar urged City Manager Spencer Cronk to devise plans to ensure various sectors of the community are aware when new orders are issued and that they are abiding by them. Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza suggested the city use vehicles equipped with public address systems to drive around educating people of the requirements.

“We have fire trucks, police cars [and] EMS [vehicles] with the ability to just say, at an intersection, ‘Wear your mask, people,’” Garza said. “I think it’s something that we can do to help educate our community.”

The new law assisting with the enforcement of Escott’s orders expires Dec. 31, 2020.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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