Friday, March 13, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Local disaster declaration extended indefinitely

As expected, Mayor Steve Adler has extended the local state of disaster declaration indefinitely, with the unanimous consent of City Council. On March 6, the mayor declared a local state of disaster for one week due to concerns over the new coronavirus, but he needed Council’s approval to extend that declaration.

The city joined Travis County commissioners, who on Tuesday declared the local state of disaster for an indefinite time period. To date, while the virus has spread throughout the United States, including the Dallas and Houston areas, there have been no reported cases in Travis County. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Council Member Greg Casar, like his colleagues, is concerned about how the disaster declaration, and the illness itself, will impact people of limited means, who may miss work because of illness or because they do not have child care. In a prepared statement, Casar said, “It is better that we act early and risk taking unpopular actions than to act late and risk being negligent.”

Casar told his colleagues that he was asking city management to make sure that the city’s water and electric utilities do not cut off service to customers who cannot pay their bills. Since the city owns these utilities, it will not be too difficult to direct them not to punish those who have fallen on hard times because of the coronavirus. He pointed out to his colleagues that the city has in the past declined to shut off utilities during a heat wave, for instance. He said he hopes to talk to local private utilities about doing the same.

Casar also wants to prevent evictions of people impacted by the public health disaster. In his statement, he said, “I have begun exploring with city staff, county officials and community partners on what local actions the city could take to reduce, slow or stop these evictions to the furthest extent allowable under law.”

“We need to continue to focus on preventing the spread in our hospitals, nursing homes, jails, and all places vulnerable people are,” he said, pointing out that Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, took steps Wednesday to protect people in long-term care facilities. Escott directed the facilities to send residents who have a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher to the hospital. The facilities are also instructed to screen all employees and visitors in order to refuse entrance to those who have a fever.

Several Council members echoed Casar’s comments. Adler said, “When we as a community stepped forward and canceled South By, it was a really painful thing to do.” He urged members of the public to contribute to various organizations raising money to help out Austinites impacted by the cancellation. A list of those organizations can be found on the SXSW website.

At the next Council meeting in two weeks, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, along with Council members Paige Ellis, Natasha Harper-Madison, Casar and the mayor, expect to introduce a resolution about helping out local artists and contractors who have been hurt by the SXSW cancellation.

Greg Fenves, president of the University of Texas, has announced that UT would extend spring break for an extra week, with classes to resume on campus Monday, March 30. The extra time will be spent gearing up for the new reality of dangers presented by the virus, including preparing for more social distancing on campus.

Council Member Harper-Madison, who was recovering from the flu, was not at Thursday’s City Council meeting under the advice of her doctor.

Photo of spring festival press conference courtesy of ATXN.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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