Community

Austin extends ordinance allowing city to enforce COVID-19 rules

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a special meeting Tuesday, Austin City Council voted to extend an ordinance that allows the city to enforce the COVID-19 rules set forward by the local health authority. The original ordinance was set to expire on Dec. 31.

“This is an extension of an ordinance that we passed last year that gave the rules of our health authority the weight and enforceability of ordinances that we would otherwise pass,” Mayor Steve Adler explained in a special meeting Tuesday.

Only one city council member present voted no.

“The 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,” Councilmember Mackenzie Kelly said as the only member to oppose the extension.

On the city’s COVID-19 key indicators dashboard, community transmission rate is in the 70s, as of Monday, putting Austin-Travis County in the substantial transmission range. The seven-day moving average of hospitalizations sits at 17, an increase from weeks prior.

“I would urge my colleagues to avoid politicizing this public health and safety issue,” Councilmember Leslie Pool said following Kelly’s comments.

Kelly also raised concern about when the public was notified of the extension.

“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 said.

A draft ordinance was first published on the Austin City Council website Friday. The health authority rules were posted on Monday and a second version of the draft ordinance was posted Tuesday, the morning of the special meeting.

KXAN was regularly checking the rules and orders page for the City of Austin and did not see the Dec. 14 updated guidance from the local health authority posted until around mid-day Tuesday, after council passed the ordinance.

That’s something Rupal Chaudhari, a contender for Travis County Judge in 2022, also raised concern about. She was one of two community members to sign up to speak at Tuesday’s meeting. The other caller also disagreed with the extension.

“It is not an emergency anymore, cases are way down and it is unreasonable to continue these restrictive rules and impose penalties,” that community member said.

Travis County Commissioners also voted Tuesday to adopt the health authority’s rules and have the ability to enforce them through the county. They did not have any callers on that agenda item and passed the motion unanimously.

The rules

The latest health authority rules to be published under the City of Austin-Travis County orders page, which was updated on Dec. 14, apply to individual behavior, businesses and schools. They also tie to the COVID-19 risk-based guidelines that have been in place.

Individuals who are not fully vaccinated are asked under the rules to wear masks and keep at least three feet from others. They’re also asked to avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces.

Individuals who are fully vaccinated are also asked to wear masks and stay away from others when risk of transmission to people who are not fully vaccinated “is significant.”

The rules don’t actually use the word “businesses” but say “a person in control of a site is encouraged to support and provide incentives for workers and patrons to obtain the vaccine to reduce the risk to those who are unable to receive the vaccine.”

It also notes that the rules set forward do not prevent anyone “in control of a site” from requiring additional precautions.

When it comes to schools, anyone entering a school over the age of 2 is required to wear a mask on school property and on school buses during Stages 3 and up. It notes that school staff may determine when “it is not appropriate to require students, staff and visitors to wear a face covering.”

Austin-Travis County is currently in Stage 3 risk-based guidelines.

As was the case with the previous ordinance, a person who knowingly violates the rule can be charged up to $2,000. Each day a violation occurs is a separate offense.

When the original ordinance was passed, KXAN reached out to the city which said the Austin Code Department, Austin Police Department and Austin Fire Marshal would all help enforce the new COVID-19 rules for the City of Austin.

KXAN has reached out to see how many times someone has been fined for breaking the COVID-19 rules and will update this article as we hear back.

You can read the rules, as they were laid out by Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Austin-Travis County health authority, here.

Written by Grace Reader

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