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Council extends masking rules to June

Wednesday, December 15, 2021 by Jo Clifton

After hearing from Dr. Desmar Walkes, health authority for Austin-Travis County, at a joint meeting with the Travis County Commissioners Court Tuesday, City Council voted to extend the current health authority rules until June 10, 2022. Commissioners also acted to extend their rules.

Under those rules, students, staff and visitors older than 2 years are required to wear face masks on school property and school buses as long as Austin is in stages 3, 4, or 5 of the health department’s risk-based chart for Covid-19. The city and county are also continuing to require that members of the public wear face masks within their buildings. The rules are identical to the ones that have been in effect since August.

The area is currently in Stage 3 and Walkes pointed out that the situation has gotten worse since Thanksgiving.

Council voted 8-1 to extend the rules, with Council Member Mackenzie Kelly voting against and Council Member Vanessa Fuentes absent for the vote. (She had attended the earlier meeting with Travis County.)

The city’s Covid-19 dashboard shows that there were 970 new cases during the week between December 7 and December 14. As of Tuesday, there were 116 people hospitalized in Austin as a result of the virus.

Two people phoned in to the meeting to ask Council not to extend the masking regulations. Mayor Steve Adler, who made the motion to approve the ordinance, said, “This is an extension of the ordinance we passed last year to give the rules of our health authority the weight and enforceability of ordinances.” Adler noted that the ordinance they were approving was similar to one that he and Travis County Judge Andy Brown ordered last year.

Adler added, “One of the reasons we’re doing as well as we are in the community, one of the reasons why our numbers are low, is that we have a community that has been vaccinated and boosted, but it’s also because we have a greater number of people masking, I believe.”

Kelly said, “One of the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Austin was on March 13, 2020. Today vaccine services for Covid-19 are readily available and the trends are showing recovery and vaccine rates are increasing. Information that we see on the Austin-Travis County Covid-19 dashboard, in my view, does not support extending an ordinance that includes penalties for an additional year.”

“As of today, we heard we had 121 inpatients (in hospitals). … To put this in perspective, Austin has a population of more than 950,000 residents,” she continued. “Further, it alarms me that we did not give our community members a chance to voice their concerns on how the ordinance will significantly impact their lives for nearly another year.”

Kelly pointed out that the item was posted on the Council website last Friday and that the ordinance they were voting on was not quite the same as the ordinance on the website. However, there was only one difference between the originally posted ordinance and the one passed on Tuesday. The original version included an emergency declaration, but that language was omitted in the newer version.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who provided the second for passage of the ordinance, urged her colleagues to support the ordinance, “and avoid politicizing this public health and safety issue any more than it already has been. And it’s our job to help pull people together.”

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license. This story has been changed since publication to reflect the fact that Council Member Casar voted in favor of the ordinance.

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