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Travis County expands public health orders to unincorporated areas, fines up to $500

Wednesday, August 5, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

The Commissioners Court unanimously approved an order Tuesday making Austin Public Health’s Health Authority Rules enforceable in unincorporated areas of Travis County. Individuals who do not abide by the local health authority’s pandemic mitigation plan may face fines of up to $500 or be subject to a civil lawsuit.

Austin Public Health outlined rules earlier in July that were adopted by the city of Austin, detailing measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19 at different businesses and job sites, including construction areas, child care facilities and hospitals. There are also guidelines for physical distancing, limitations for group gatherings, rules for face covering and protocols for those who have been exposed to the virus.

The order will go into effect on Aug. 14 and will expire on Nov. 12.

Enforceable measures in the new order include the requirement that people must wear face coverings when outside of their residences and must remain six feet apart. Gatherings of more than 10 individuals are not permitted. Those who test positive for Covid-19 or who have had known exposure are asked to quarantine for a 14-day period. Workers will need to undergo daily health screenings and wear facial coverings while employers will need to sanitize operations at least twice daily and provide signage related to hygiene requirements in English and in Spanish.

“I think this is a very sensible thing to do,” said Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who cautioned the court that although the enforcement period will legally begin on Aug. 14, the Fire Marshal’s Office and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office show leniency for first-time violators.

County Judge Sam Biscoe agreed, saying that the county needs to give residents outside city limits an opportunity to comply with the new rules. “If it’s an unincorporated area, I think it’s kind of presumptive for us to think residents (in these districts) watch our meeting,” Biscoe said.

Commissioners will meet Wednesday with leaders from the small cities within the county to encourage them to adopt a similar public health enforcement strategy.

Austin and Travis County experienced an uptick in cases over the last few days, according to Austin Public Health Director Dr. Mark Escott, who presented the health authority’s data to the Commissioners Court on Tuesday. The data, which showed a decrease in doubling time and a plateau in the number of new reported cases, “is moving in the wrong direction at this stage,” Dr. Escott told commissioners. This is a change after a progressive decline in reported cases in the latter half of July following a surge in late June.

Despite these numbers, Dr. Escott said Travis County has crossed into Stage 3 territory from Stage 4. In Stage 3, the county may have up to 40 new hospital admissions on a seven-day moving average. On Aug. 3, area hospitals reported 37 daily admissions.

Nevertheless, he said taking precautions continues to be a paramount priority. He explained that the local public health authority is looking to have two weeks with numbers within the Stage 3 range before officially lowering the advisory to a less protective stage.

With the pandemic ongoing, Biscoe noted that detailed, enforceable rules are necessary to prevent a second spike in disease spread. “In my view, this (order) would allow us to cover the gap in unincorporated areas.”

At the vote, Commissioner Brigid Shea was absent from the dais.

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