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Council seeks to add teeth to virus regulations

Thursday, July 9, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Mayor Steve Adler is proposing two ordinances: one would authorize the city health authority – in this case Dr. Mark Escott – to adopt rules protecting people from Covid 19 and create a class C misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500 for anyone convicted of violating those rules. The second ordinance would allow the city to declare businesses that fail to comply with regulations intended to limit the spread of Covid-19 public health nuisances and to file suit for injunctive relief.

Adler told the Austin Monitor Wednesday, “The Council is defining what is a public nuisance, so the Code (Department) … could now operate to enforce this ordinance against establishments or places where disease spreads.” Both ordinances are directed at businesses as opposed to individuals.

While being declared a nuisance and ordered to stop doing business would be a hardship for individual businesses, the ordinance would not have the same impact on businesses that are following the rules.

Adler said the city currently has the authority to enforce orders he and County Judge Sam Biscoe put forth to stop the spread of the disease. However, adding the nuisance ordinance “enables you to enjoin the use of the property in a way that spreads disease.” So if the city determines a business is a public nuisance, a judge can issue an injunction to close down the business.

Under the nuisance ordinance, a person who is in control of a site must do a number of things, most of which are well known to businesses and the public at this point. Those include requiring everyone on site to wear a face covering, limit the number of individuals who gather or stand together to 10 or fewer, conduct a general health screening for each worker before he or she begins a shift, and enforce rules about hand washing.

Construction sites are required to institute staggered shifts, ensure hand-washing stations and restrooms are spaced 6 feet apart or more, keep a list of each worker who enters a job site every day, and provide individual water bottles for workers or instruct them to bring their own.

Upon the request of Dr. Escott, the city attorney is authorized to file suit for an injunction against any business that is not abiding by the health regulations.

Adler said he and his colleagues are trying to ensure that the city has an alternative method of enforcement if a court should decide that Gov. Greg Abbott did not have the authority to close bars. If that happened, the city might be able to step in and reach the same conclusion through different regulations.

Adler’s co-sponsors are Council members Greg Casar, Kathie Tovo and Paige Ellis and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza.

On Wednesday, Abbott sent a letter to Adler about today’s resolutions.

“The city of Austin’s consideration of additional enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with my Executive Orders is an important step toward reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19). As you know, these Orders were created and adopted based on advice from medical experts, and if these Orders are followed, we will be able to protect both public health and the livelihoods of our citizens,” Abbott wrote. “Taking steps to ensure compliance with these Orders, as the city is contemplating, is necessary to protect public health and safety and will reduce the spread of Covid-19.”

Adler has suggested recently on several occasions that he might ask Abbott to shut down Austin’s nonessential businesses for 35 days. However, on Tuesday he told KXAN it was not yet time to do that. At the same time he warned residents that they must follow the rules to stop the spread of the virus and prevent another shutdown. Abbott has adamantly opposed another shutdown.

Adler urged the community to watch the presentation at Thursday’s Council meeting from Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers, an epidemiologist at UT Austin, for a better understanding of how the virus spreads and how the public should respond. The meeting starts at 10 a.m. online and on ATXN (Channel 6). As of 6 p.m. Wednesday, Travis County had registered 13,161 cases, up from 12,408 on Tuesday, with a death toll of 159 and 458 hospitalized. Health officials are keeping a close watch on those hospitalized and in intensive care as the city makes preparations to use the convention center as a field hospital for additional patients.

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