Austin’s top doctor sends letter to sororities, fraternities following photos of gatherings

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — At Austin Public Health’s weekly COVID-19 briefing for members of the press, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott addressed recent footage posted to social media which shows young people gathering outdoors in Austin.

Escott said he was “disappointed” yesterday when he saw to see photos “of young people on the streets of Austin.” While Escott did not specify which photos he was referring to, this message came alongside his public health reminders to college students and a warning that fraternity and sorority houses would be getting a letter from the health department Wednesday reminding them “of their legal responsibilities in this pandemic.”

Austin Public Health updated KXAN Wednesday afternoon with a copy of this letter that was sent out to Greek Life organizations. The letter reminds these groups of the local orders to protect against COVID-19 from both Austin Mayor Steve Adler as well as Dr. Escott. These groups are warned that violations could result in punishments including criminal prosecution and a fine

“We need to do better. We all have to be engaged in this mission together. We have to show that as college students in Austin Texas that we can be responsible as well, that we can forgo the usual, the customary things we do as college students temporarily as we fight this dangerous pandemic.”

Dr. Mark Escott Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority

Escott continued, “I think it’s important for student leaders to stand up as well and say that same message to their peers, that we have to be responsible right now and we are not going to be the cause of a potential outbreak.”

This comes after video and photos from Monday night have been passed around on social media showing what appears to be a group of young women gathering in West Campus, wearing halos but not masks. A person who filmed this incident told KXAN it happened at around 6 p.m. Monday on the corner of Rio Grande and West 22nd 1/2 streets outside the Hardin House.

Tuesday, UT Austin addressed this incident in a statement, suggesting the young women pictured in these photos are UT students who belong to organizations with national offices.

The university said these students “put themselves and others at risk and should get tested through the University’s Proactive Community Testing Program.”

UT added that it will be “reaching out to the advisors and national offices of the groups whose members were at the gathering to reinforce our expectations and will continue to look to the City of Austin to enforce its orders on public gatherings.”

UT previously explained to KXAN that it plans to enforce violations of COVID-19 rules on campus through student conduct consequences, including suspension. The UT Police Department only enforces state rules, not the City of Austin rules, so the university said it will “continue to look to the City of Austin to enforce its orders on public gatherings.”

What health leaders plan to do

On Wednesday, Escott reminded Greek Life facilities that as site operators in the City of Austin, they have a responsibility to follow the Health Authority COVID-19 orders. While UT may have authority on campus, students off campus are beholden to the city of Austin rules.

“I have confidence that UT as well as the other colleges and universities will do their part,” Escott said.

“We know this is a group which is at higher risk because of the interactions that they have with one another,” he said of college students.

Escott also suggested he has confidence that UT and other higher education institutions “will enforce the rules.”

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden noted that APH plans to have a few meetings with representatives from fraternities and sororities “and inform them ‘these are the rules that are in place.’”

She said the health department is working closely with UT and all the colleges and universities in town on measures to curb the spread of the virus.

Hayden noted that the city’s free isolation facilities where people with COVID-19 can stay to avoid infecting others will be open to students who primarily live on campus.

City of Austin COVID-19 rules

The current order in place by city of Austin prohibits gatherings of groups of more than 10 people who do not live in the same household.

While local governments in Texas cannot require mask-wearing outright, Governor Abbott has clarified that local governments are allowed to require businesses to require employees and customers to wear face coverings. Since this clarification from the governor, the city of Austin has implemented a requirement that businesses require employees and customers to wear face coverings in most cases. Violations of this order are a criminal offense in the City of Austin which Austin Police, Austin Code Department, and the office of the Austin Fire Marshal are authorized to enforce. Any individual found to be in violation of the mask requirement will be given a warning on the first offense and a $250 fine for each subsequent violation.1 fine in 1 month: How APD is enforcing the city’s mask ordinance 

Further orders from Austin’s Health Authority mean that those over the age of 10 not wearing masks in public can be subject to a fine of up to $2,000. Additional order from the Health Authority states that sites, including businesses, that don’t comply with state and local COVID-19 orders to be declared a “nuisance” and face possible civil penalties.

Many UT Austin community members live off-campus in the City of Austin, so these city rules would apply in places like West Campus.

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