Long-time Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe steps in during disaster declaration, COVID-19 concerns

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Judge Samuel Biscoe served more than 15 years as Travis County judge. When he retired in 2015, he never thought he’d be back on the Commissioners Court.

“When people would ask me what I am doing, I would tell them, ‘I’m fully retired,”” Biscoe said. “Meaning — don’t ask me to do anything for you.”

That is, until he got the call notifying him Judge Sarah Eckhardt was resigning to run for state Senate, and he was being recommended to fill in.

Eckhardt’s announcement came just hours after the county voted to extend their disaster declaration, amid concerns over COVID-19. At that same Commissioners Court meeting, large-scale events like Rodeo Austin and Willie Nelson’s Luck reunion were given the “green light” to proceed — for now.

“We are fortunate though, in that we don’t have a transfer from person-to-person in Travis County yet,” Biscoe said. “Our health experts say we have got to stay ready and stay on our toes, which we have been trying to do, and be prepared to take emergency action.”

While Biscoe said the cancellation of SXSW was unprecedented, he said he’s handled other crises at the county.

“There are big issues,” Biscoe said, “but I was Precinct 1 Commissioner for nine years and County Judge for 16. I have done these kinds of issues for and at Travis County for a long period of time.”

There is a special voting session of the Commissioners Court scheduled for Thursday afternoon, and the discussion about mass gatherings, like Rodeo Austin and Luck Reunion, is listed on the agenda.

When asked if Houston’s recent decision to cancel their Rodeo would influence Travis County’s decision about Rodeo Austin, Biscoe said he didn’t think it would affect it too much right now.

“I do think we have to follow the lead of the other urban counties in the United States and have to discourage huge crowds in one location to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” Briscoe said. “We will follow reasonable leads.”

He said, in his opinion, the hope is to keep Rodeo Austin in place “as long as possible,” especially as they are implementing mitigation techniques.

“Now if you are talking about two to three thousand people, it’s a lot more difficult,” Briscoe said, “and if you are talking about some of the activities — the dancing, the touching — there’s a whole lot more of it at the musical events and stuff like that.”

He said it’s something the county will be re-evaluating often, depending on the risks and the advice from medical professionals.

About future events, Biscoe said, “I do see the Commissioners Court as not approving some of those mass gatherings initiatives… It seems to me, certain, that some if not all would be turned down.”

He urged people planning large events to get with county leaders early and start the permitting process sooner, rather than later.

Eckhardt will remain at the county as a “holdover” for now, to keep things running smoothly until the transition is complete. Biscoe will be sworn in as Travis County judge on March 23.

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