Austin crafting rules expected to fine those who don’t wear masks up to $2K

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Thursday, Austin City Council unanimously approved two ordinances that create penalties for not following existing government orders related to COVID-19. One of these ordinances is expected to impose a fine of up to $2,000 for violations of a Health Authority order to wear face coverings.

The specifics of enforcement and the exact wording of the ordinance remain unclear.

New power for the Health Authority

One of the newly approved ordinances grants Austin’s Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott the power to make rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and for the city to enforce actions against those who violate his rules.

This ordinance states that anyone who “knowingly violates a health authority rule” commits an offense and that each offense is punishable by a fine of up to $2,000. The ordinance expires on December 31, 2020.

The ordinance states that each day a violation occurs is considered a separate offense.

This ordinance is still being drafted, but it is expected to create requirements similar to the Governor’s and Mayor’s orders, which include mandates to wear face coverings.

Violations of the Health Authority rules will be enforced as most other city ordinances are: with a fine only misdemeanor prosecuted at Municipal Court.

Civil penalties for “nuisances”

Thursday, the council also voted unanimously to approve a second ordinance which declares properties that aren’t in compliance with state and local COVID-19 orders a “nuisance” which can be abated.

This includes orders from Gov. Greg Abbott and the City of Austin’ mandates to wear masks.

Sites, including businesses, that fail to comply with the minimum standards of this ordinance will be punished with a civil suit filed by the city for injunctive relief, which calls for a change in conduct. If the site also violates health authority rules, the city can move forward with a case in Municipal Court. Businesses which are declared a nuisance under this ordinance can also be fined up to $2,000 if they do not comply with the health authority orders.

City staff explained at the council meeting that government entities and medical providers are exempt from this particular ordinance, though these sites are still subject to state nuisance law.

What happens next?

The earliest the ordinances could go into effect is Tuesday July 14.

As far as how these two ordinances will be enforced, a city spokesperson told KXAN, “we are currently in discussions on how to implement the recently passed ordinances with legal, health experts, safety personnel, and law enforcement and will update the public as more information is available.”

Support from Governor Abbott

In an interview with KXAN News on Wednesday, Gov. Abbott praised Austin City Council’s considerations to address the spread of COVID-19, but also said that implementing another shutdown of businesses would be “in contradiction” to his executive order to reopen.

Though KXAN asked which specific actions Abbott was expressing his support for in a letter to Mayor Adler Wednesday, Abbott did not clarify.

Adler interpreted Abbott’s letter to be expressing support for the two ordinances on council’s agenda Thursday which created additional tools by which to enforce existing state and local COVID-19 orders. The mayor even included the governor’s letter as a backup document in the council’s discussion.

“I think it is significant the governor sent us a letter, encouraging us to take additional measures we can take in order to be able to enforce these orders,” Alder told the council. “It’s a welcome letter to get.”

During the special called meeting Thursday, the council was told by UT researchers that the current data does not indicate that a shutdown is needed just yet.

While Austin City Council has discussed the possibility of a 35-day shutdown, both UT’s COVID-19 pandemic modeling team and Austin’s Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott advised that the data indicates a shutdown is not necessary yet.

Is a 35-day shutdown coming to Austin?

On Thursday, Texas received grim news: 105 new COVID-19 deaths statewide — the highest number of fatalities reported in a single day. Additionally, 9,782 new COVID-19 cases were reported Thursday in Texas.

Dr. John Abikhaled of the Travis County Medical Society tells KXAN physicians are seeing more and more patients in ICUs and on ventilators. He says how we follow these new rules by the city, will determine what happens in the next few weeks.

“The virus that was spread around three weeks ago, it’s those people who are now getting admitted to the hospital. Even if everybody starts doing those things distancing, wearing masks, washing their hands so that we stop spreading the virus to each other, it will take two to three weeks for that to have an effect before things settle down again,” said Dr. Abikhaled.

Local physicians issued an urgent plea in this video for neighbors to continue following local and state mandates to stop the spread of COVID-19.

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