AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin-Travis County leaders announced new orders aimed at businesses as case numbers and hospitalizations from COVID-19 continue to rise in Central Texas. The orders could draw legal action from the state.
The only enforceable requirement set forward by the orders, which are called the “protecting customers and employees and preserving adequate workforce capacity orders,” is businesses will have to post COVID-19 signage.
Businesses that do not comply with the orders could face a $1,000 fine every day the order is not followed. The order said police officers, the Austin Code Department and the Austin Fire Marshal have the authority to enforce the new rules.
The orders, signed by Austin Mayor Steve Adler, will also give businesses more authority to require people to follow COVID-19 precautions set by the business, which could include requiring employees to be vaccinated and boosted.
“We appreciate every business that does their part to keep our community and their customers healthy and safe,” Travis County Judge Andy Brown said. “Today’s orders support local businesses by providing them tools and options to keep their doors open, customers safe and our local economy growing.”
Meanwhile, Nan Tolson, a spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott said, “This municipal order is preempted by Executive Orders GA-38, GA-39 and GA-40 — all of which remain in full effect. Any business would be within its legal rights to ignore this municipal order.”
Abbott signed into law an executive order that does not allow local government-issued mask mandates or business restrictions. That executive order has been in place since July of last year.
“The Governor’s executive orders, again having the full force and effect of law, are enforceable by state and local law enforcement, and our office continues working with the Office of the Attorney General to protect the rights and freedoms of all Texans,” Tolson said. “The best defense against this virus is the COVID vaccines, and we continue to strongly encourage all eligible Texans to get vaccinated.”
KXAN contacted an outside legal expert to weigh in on the battle between this city ordinance and the state law.
“It’s designed to use social pressure, not legal pressure to do this,” said Josh Blackman with South Texas School of Law Houston.
He said there are also risks to both posting and not posting this signage.
“If a business refuses to, and the city fines them, the business can challenge the fine, because they can say the city order is illegal,” Blackman said. He also said, on the other hand, if businesses do post the sign with the box checked that they require their employees to get vaccinated, it flags the state about businesses violating the governor’s order.
Austin-Travis County is in Stage 5 risk-based guidelines right now, the most restrictive tier. Those guidelines recommend everyone who is out in public wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.
At places like Waterloo Records and The Herb Bar, where masking has been required for months now, not much will change. The Herb Bar has had ‘mask up, y’all’ signs on its front door since June 2020.
“Our owner and all of our employees really felt more comfortable for themselves, their health and the health of their families to require everyone to wear a mask,” owner Jenny Oak Walker said. The staff at The Herb Bar have all gotten their booster shots and have so far avoided getting COVID-19, something Oak Walker hopes will stay that way.
“It would be really difficult for one of us to get sick with COVID and have to close the business down for, is it two weeks?” she said.
Meanwhile, a woman shopping nearby, Kendall Becker, said she’s neutral about whether vaccines and masks are required in businesses, but she feels it’s her responsibility to follow the rules posted by a business.
“If you’re coming to this establishment, you should be following the protocols of the business. You’re being a patron, and it’s their rules, and if I go anywhere that is requiring masks or six feet distance it is my job to be respectful and follow that,” she said.
As of Wednesday, 128 people are in Austin-area ICUs. There were 106 new hospital admissions over the last day, though health leaders have said some of those people are showing up to the hospital for non-COVID-related treatment and testing positive.
You can read the full orders here.