Austin (KXAN) — Austin City Council voted unanimously Thursday to extend a local disaster declaration in response to concerns over the spread of COVID-19.
On March 6, Austin Mayor Steve Adler first made the local emergency declaration after consulting Austin health officials, but that declaration only lasted for seven days. Originally there was a possibility for the council to extend that declaration until April 5, but the wording which got approved by the council extends the declaration “indefinitely” or until the council decides to remove it.
On Tuesday, Travis County Commissioners voted to extend the county’s local disaster declaration and Mayor Adler said that the city’s action Thursday will keep the city “in accord with what the county did.”
Why declare a local disaster?
Though the 2019 coronavirus disease continues to spread and spark concern globally, Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk confirmed to the council Thursday that there are no known, confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Austin.
A city spokesperson explained that a state of local disaster is something that gets issued by the mayor and “triggers ability of local health authority to say there is reasonable risk of spread of disease.”
This recent disaster declaration gives Mayor Adler additional powers for emergency management, in fact he is designated the “emergency management director” of the city and can use some powers designated to the state governor under the Texas Disaster Act on a local scale.
Under the Texas Disaster Act, a disaster is defined as “the occurrence or imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property.”
With this local disaster declaration in place, the mayor has the authority to order the evacuation from a “stricken or threatened area” if he considers it necessary. He also has the authority to control people going to or leaving the disaster area.
Under the Texas Government Code, this declaration means the mayor can issue public orders. He can also direct city employees to do things such as carry out an emergency management program and protect public safety.
At the council meeting Thursday, Adler explained that the first of the orders issued under this disaster declaration was the order to ban gatherings of 2,500 people or more through May 1 unless organizers are able to assure Austin Public Health that “mitigation plans for infectious diseases are in place.”
A City of Austin spokesperson explained that there are other types of disaster declarations that could impact Austin. For example, the Texas governor and State Health Services can declare a “public health disaster” which would give Austin-Travis County health authority additional powers to designate healthcare facilities for quarantine, isolation, or treatment. Additionally, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has the power to make a state disaster declaration which would prompt additional powers for the state government.
John Wittman, a spokesperson for Governor Abbott, Tweeted a photo of a call Abbott hosted with local officials Thursday on COVID-19 and promised an update in a press conference at noon on Friday. As to whether the governor would declare a state disaster related to a coronavirus, Wittman said, “stay tuned.”
Concerns remain for local businesses
Friday would have marked the first day of South by Southwest, but the city expects there to be crowds anyway.
That’s why employees of Austin’s Economic Development Department went around to bars and restaurants along 6th Street, Red River, and the Warehouse District.
KXAN tagged along as city officials passed out fliers and asked these businesses to put up signs about hand washing and other hygiene tips.
“We’re just answering any questions they have, taking feedback on what they’re feeling and we’re letting them know that we’re concerned about them,” said Veronica Briseno, Economic Development Director.
One bar employee said he hasn’t noticed a difference in the flow of business so far, but that this weekend would be a big test.
The “Stand with Austin” group to help support local businesses says it will donate $260,000 if the community matches.
The site to donate can be found here.