Austin weekly roundup: Governor plans statewide camping ban, COVID-19 numbers flatten and more

Gov. Greg Abbott said he will announce statewide plans to address homelessness that include camping bans. (Brian Rash/Community Impact Newspaper)
Gov. Greg Abbott said he will announce statewide plans to address homelessness that include camping bans. (Brian Rash/Community Impact Newspaper)

Gov. Greg Abbott said he will announce statewide plans to address homelessness that include camping bans. (Brian Rash/Community Impact Newspaper)

Good morning Austin. We are trying out something new to help you follow all the local news happening in your community. Each Monday morning, we will summarize the biggest stories we are following in the city and let you know what’s happening as you get your week started.

There is so much going on right now—from the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic to the vaccine rollout to the start of the 87th Texas legislative session—and that sometimes means the flood of information can get overwhelming. With so much changing day to day, the goal of this update is to quickly catch you up. Sometimes I will write it. Sometimes you will see our reporters jump in, and if you have any feedback, as always, get in touch with us to let us know what you like or what we can do better.

—Jack Flagler, editor, Central Austin and Southwest Austin/Dripping Springs editions

A state and local push is happening to reinstate a camping ban, but is that legal?

Homelessness has been a priority issue in Austin for years amid a growing crisis in the city, and Austin City Hall Reporter Christopher Neely has the latest developments this week.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a harsh critic of the way Austin has handled its homelessness challenges, said he will announce a statewide plan that will include bans on camping. That announcement came one day after Abbott threatened to step in and enforce tighter restrictions in Austin, which lifted its camping ban in 2019.

Meanwhile, a local effort to reinstate the camping ban is also underway. Nonprofit group Save Austin Now said this week it turned in more than the required 20,000 signatures to the Austin City Clerk to put the question of bringing back the ban to Austin voters in May. The group tried to get the question on the November ballot but did not have enough valid signatures, according to the clerk.

The legality of reinstating the ban is an open question. In 2018, a year before Austin repealed its own ban, a federal court ruled unless a community had enough shelter beds for its homeless population, the community could not ban camping. That court ruling does not have jurisdiction in Texas—it stemmed from a case in Boise, Idaho, If the Fifth Circuit court that does cover Texas were to rule differently on the same issue, it would create a circuit split—which, according to Emily Gerrick of the Texas Fair Defense Project, could lead the U.S. Supreme Court to get involved.

With vaccines coming in slowly each week, public health professionals preach patience

Reporter Olivia Aldridge has covered the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in Austin, including residents hitting dead ends when seeking an initial dose of the vaccine. Dr. Mark Escott, the interim health authority for Austin-Travis County, has tried to provide some perspective for a community that is anxiously waiting, calling it a “miracle” that effective vaccines are already in circulation. As of the end of last week, about 6% of the local population had received at least one vaccine dose, according to state data.

While vaccine doses remain extremely limited, there is some somewhat promising news regarding the COVID-19 numbers locally. The community is still in its highest risk stage, Stage 5, but since hitting a peak of 93.7 for the seven-day moving average for COVID-19 hospitalizations, the trend has flattened, leveling off at 83.8 on Jan. 21.

More news to know

  • New unemployment numbers came out Jan. 22 from the Texas Workforce Commission. Austin’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.1% as, like many communities, it continues to slowly crawl back from double-digit unemployment levels in April. Austin’s rate is better than the state and national averages but still double what it was at this time last year.

  • Abby Jane Love, who formerly was the pastry chef at Dai Due, has opened her own bakeshop in Dripping Springs, Abby Jane Bakeshop. Elsewhere on the bakery beat, Teal House Coffee & Bakery is opening its new storefront on South Congress Avenue on Saturday. Owner Lance Phillips will keep his trailer on Slaughter Lane open as he expands to the brick-and-mortar shop.