Travis County plans to reopen facilities but with masking requirements
After nearly three months of quiet hallways and locked doors, Travis County facilities will begin reopening at the end of June.
To ensure the continued safety of employees returning to the workplace as well as residents accessing county services, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on June 16 to require facial coverings for anyone on county premises. This requirement, intended to help slow the spread of Covid-19, will be enforceable with criminal trespassing charges under the order adopted by the Commissioners Court.
While the order states that county officials will “endeavor to give customers a minimum of one written or verbal warning and an opportunity to comply before issuing a trespass notice,” those who refuse may face an arrest and a punishment of a fine up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail.
In the order, the commissioners specify that mandating facial coverings is consistent with Gov. Greg Abbott’s June 3 order in which he said entities reopening to the public can require customers to follow additional hygiene measures when obtaining services. The Travis County order interprets this to include facial coverings.
The governor’s order actually stipulates, “Individuals are encouraged to wear appropriate face coverings, but no jurisdiction can impose a civil or criminal penalty for failure to wear a face covering.”
“It’s because we are responsible for the safe operations of our county facilities. If someone absolutely refuses to abide by the public health precautions … we have the right to turn them away,” Commissioner Brigid Shea told the Austin Monitor. “We’ve taken actions that we believe are within the law,” Shea added.
Travis County spokesperson Hector Nieto explained the legality of the measure to the Monitor via email. “Travis County, as landowners, are entitled to use the same laws available to other landowners in determining what is appropriate for its buildings. It is similar to ‘No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service,’” he said.
Eric Stockton, the chief deputy of technology and operations for Travis County, explained to the Commissioners Court that criminal charges are a last resort. If a person shows up without a mask, the county will provide a disposable mask for use on-site. He noted that the county will make exceptions in cases where mouth and nose coverings pose a risk to an individual’s physical health. In such cases, accommodations will be made to serve the individual either through online resources or telephone.
All county facilities are not subject to this facial covering mandate. Travis County correctional facilities, including the Travis County Jail/Central Booking, Travis County Correctional Complex or a juvenile detention facility will follow rules outlined by their designated authority, such as the Travis County sheriff or chief juvenile probation officer. Travis County courthouse complexes or courtrooms subject to the rules mandated by the Texas Supreme Court will adhere to rules set forth by that governing body.
Facilities that do fall under the county’s new masking requirements will follow additional safety precautions, such as avoiding unnecessary physical contact like handshakes, maintaining 6 feet of distance and avoiding entering facilities if any symptoms are identified.
To supplement these preventive measures, county facilities will not immediately open to pre-pandemic levels at the end of June. Stockton outlined a three-phase approach that he said will begin with “small steps.” Those baby steps will include maintaining as much of the county workforce in remote employment as possible.
“We are restoring services that cannot be done remotely,” Stockton told commissioners. “(We will) ensure any part of work that can be done remotely can continue to do so.”
It will take at least 60 days from the reopening of county facilities to arrive at phase three operation levels, in which the county will have an official telework policy approved, departments will have protocols for staff and client safety, and departments will be working on a business continuity plan to adjust operations should there be another spike in coronavirus cases in the county.
The Commissioners Court unanimously approved the phased reopening plan, which is based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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