AUSTIN (KXAN) — New orders go into effect Tuesday, June 23 for Austin and Travis County that require businesses to adopt and enforce health plans that require customers and staff to wear face coverings.
These orders are an update to orders issued last week when local governments in Texas learned they had the additional latitude to create face-covering requirements for businesses. A release from the City of Austin regarding these orders notes that this comes as record numbers of COVID-19 cases have been reported for several days in a row this past week in Austin and Travis County.
Both orders last through August 15 and require businesses to post their health and safety plan in a place where employees and visitors can see them, the city explained.
The city also noted in a release that both orders, at minimum, require all employees and visitors to wear face coverings, with certain exeptions.
The Travis County order issued by Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe applies to all “commercial entities” in the county that “provide goods and services directly to the public.” This policy must, at a minimum, require that all employees and visitors to the premises wear face coverings wherever six feet of social distancing is not possible.
The City of Austin’s order issued by Austin Mayor Steve Adler applies to all businesses, whether they are publicly facing or not. This includes nonprofits, multifamily residential, office areas, individual office spaces, and operators of any venues or events.
The city explained that individuals do not have to wear face coverings under a few excpetions:
- When alone in a separate, single space indoors or outdoors
- When in person in the presence of only other members of the same household or residence
- When doing so poses a greater mental or physical health, safety, or security risk
- When outdoors engaging in an allowed activity while alone, or with only members of the same household or residence, or while maintaining a consistent separation of six feet or more from others and engaging in conduct authorized and as allowed by Governor’s Order GA-26 or subsequent executive order
- While eating or drinking in a restaurant or a bar
Businesses can also implement other measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 such as temperature checks or health screenings, the city said.
This policy comes after a back and forth over how much authority local governments should have to call for measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In early April, Austin and Travis County issued orders which required people to wear face coverings in public. However, Texas Governor Greg Abbott later said that his statewide orders rendered these local orders unenforceable.
Last week, cities and counties learned that while they do not have the authority to require face coverings, the governor’s orders do allow them to require businesses to require employees and patrons to wear face coverings. One by one, Texas cities and counties began adopting new orders to set up these requirements for businesses.
In an interview Tuesday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler explained that the orders Austin and Travis County put in place last week required businesses to develop health and safety plans related to face coverings.
“So last week we wanted to give businesses a little bit of notice, that this week we were going to be actually requiring that they require people to wear masks in their businesses,” Adler explained. Now, he said, businesses in Austin and Travis County are responsible for ensuring their customers, vendors and employees wear face coverings.
How will this be enforced?
Adler said another difference with these orders is that they will be enforceable.
“There was nothing that the city could do to enforce the requirement to wear a face-covering two weeks ago, and that’s because the governor had stopped us,” he said, noting that the governor had disallowed local governments from enforcing face-covering requirements with civil or criminal penalties. “And now we can enforce it by enforcing it against the businesses.”
“But I would point out” Adler said. “That we do not have enough police officers or deputy sheriffs to actually police this to enforce it.”
“This has got to be something that our community wants, this has got to be something that we police one another, that we encourage one another and that by our example we demonstrate to others that this is who we are,” he said.
Travis County spokesperson Hector Nieto explained that in parts of Travis County that are outside of the city of Austin, people can report violations of these orders to 3-1-1 or 9-1-1. Because the Travis County order covers multiple local governments, either the local police department, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office or the Travis County Fire Marshal’s office will respond, depending on the call. Failure to develop and implement a health and safety policy required by this Travis County order may result in a fine of up to $1,000 for each violation.
City of Austin
In the city of Austin, the Austin Code Department will be the first entity to respond to reported violations of these orders in most cases. In Austin, if someone believes the order is being violated by a business, they can report it directly to Austin 3-1-1.
The City says Austin Code Department will then reach out to the business about the complaint, reminding the business about the requirements and where they can get information to help them comply with the order. If a business has a second offense, Austin Code will be sent to the business to see if they are in compliance with the order. If a business is found not to be in compliance after that second offense, the business will be issued a $1,000 fine per day until the business complies.
If a customer at a business is unwilling to follow the order, a business can ask that customer to leave. If that person refuses to leave, the business can call 9-1-1 and Austin Police will respond. If the person still refuses to leave the individual will be charged with criminal trespassing.
“It’s on each of us to wear a mask to keep our economy open and one another safe,” said Adler said in a release. “With our numbers rising, we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do this together, and we’ve got to do this now. “
Why face coverings?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person by the droplets that travel when someone coughs, sneezes, or talks. The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to follow, noting that cloth face coverings may slow the spread of the virus and may avoid people who are unaware they are infected from unwittingly transferring it.
Even prior to these orders being issued, Austin’s Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott while speaking at a virtual press conferences called on business owners to require face coverings.
“I think this is a strong position that our business community needs to take in order to ensure that we are doing as much as we can to mitigate that risk of spread, to protect our community, and to ensure that those businesses can stay open,” Escott said.
The City of Austin noted that face coverings do not erase the need to keep physical distance to prevent the spread of the virus. The city advises that face coverings should cover both your nose and mouth and attach securely behind your ears. Additionally, the city said that face-coverings should be washed after each use with hot water and detergent and that people should wash their hands immediately after touching the face covering.
The City said that face coverings should not be worn by children younger than two years old, anyone who has trouble breathing, anyone who is unconscious or incapacitated, or anyone who can’t remove the face covering without help.
Rights and liberties
At a press conference Monday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott reminded the public about the importance of wearing masks. “I know that some people feel like wearing a mask is inconvenient or infringing on freedom,” but wearing a mask will slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Abbott said on Monday.
Austin-based conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation issued a press release Tuesday criticizing Austin area officials for these orders.
“The new restrictions on businesses only serve to scare the public into thinking they are highly susceptible to grave harm and even death if they don’t comply,” the release said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
“The more effective way to protect public health and do the least amount of damage to our community is to provide as much information to the public as possible and allow businesses and customers to decide how to act on their own,” TPPF suggested.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the claims that these restrictions “only serve to scare the public”are untrue.
“This is a virus that is spreading very rapidly and it is true that most of the people that get this virus will not die from it, Adler acknowledged. “But a sufficiently large part of the population, if they get this, are susceptible and will face a preventable death and we should be doing everything we can to protect those people: older people in our community, the populations of color in our community that are more susceptible, people with diabetes or obesity or a lung conditions.”
Adler noted that even young people in Austin are susceptible to the virus and can experience serious complications from it. Indeed, Austin’s Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott shared Austin Public Health data Tuesday that showed 70% of the COVID-19 cases in Austin-Travis County since June 8 have been in people ages 20 through 39.
“I understand that these masks are not fun to wear, they’re not particularly comfortable a lot of people don’t think they look very good, it’s hot in Texas, but boy what a small price to pay to be able to have the best chance possible to reopen our economy” Adler said.
“We cant expect everybody else to do what’s necessary to open up the economy and somehow or another try to excuse ourselves,” Adler continued. “No one has a base liberty interest in being able to infect other people. If folks that weren’t wearing a mask were taking risks just for themselves, that might be a different thing, but you put on a mask in order to be part of a community that’s trying to keep businesses open, to be part of a community that’s trying not to infect one another.”
“This is something that we can do and it doesn’t bring to bear fundamental or constitutional rights, it’s just being good neighbors,” he concluded.