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Photo by Michael Minasi/KUT

City ‘continues to work through’ governor’s order to slowly reopen Texas

Friday, May 1, 2020 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Texas’ statewide stay-at-home order expires Friday, but the city of Austin has yet to clarify how this might affect local residents, how it will enforce the governor’s new order and what, if any, additional requirements the city will enact.

“The city of Austin continues to work through the implications of the governor’s Executive Order,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email Thursday morning, later adding that it may be Monday before the city clarifies what the state action means locally. “We will share information with media partners and the general public once we have more information to share.”

Beginning Friday, restaurants, malls and retail shops will be allowed to open in the state, following an announcement by Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday. Establishments that open will be required to limit occupancy to 25 percent; the governor said enforcement of this rule would be up to municipalities. While he also encouraged people to wear face masks, he said cities could no longer enforce the rule.

On Tuesday, Austin City Council members heard from public health experts who said they were concerned that relaxing the current stay-at-home orders could mean new Covid-19 cases would overwhelm area hospitals by the summer.

Mayor Steve Adler said at the end of the meeting that the city would clarify the state’s order.

“We’re going to come out with the guidance in our city about the things that we need to do in Austin to keep our community safe,” Adler said, adding that he and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt would be talking about extending the stay-at-home order which, although largely overridden by the governor’s action, is not set to expire until May 8.

While the statewide order overrides aspects of local orders that conflict with it, the city has not clarified which parts of its current order will remain in place.

By text message Thursday, Adler said he would be issuing a new order, but he was not sure when. Other cities have updated their orders to be in line with the state’s and to further clarify what residents are permitted to do, such as how many people can gather.

For example, San Antonio issued a new order Wednesday, incorporating the state’s new guidelines. San Antonio will continue requiring people 10 years and older to cover their mouths and noses in public, but per the governor’s order, will not enforce the rule. San Antonio is also prohibiting private gatherings outside of one’s own household.

The state has said people should maintain a six-foot distance from those not living in their household, but this is only a recommendation. Austin’s current order prohibits indoor and outdoor gatherings (though you can still be around people you live with). The governor’s order says all Texans must still “minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household,” but the city has yet to interpret what that will mean for Austinites.

As of Thursday afternoon, a list of closed city facilities had not been updated since April 15. Austin Public Library said in an emailed statement that it will reopen “when it can do so in a manner that does not jeopardize the health and safety of its employees and the community it serves.”

Austin City Council members are scheduled to meet today in an executive session, which is not open to the public, to discuss police matters and issues related to Covid-19. A city spokesperson said it’s possible they will discuss how Austin residents should interpret the state order.

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