AUSTIN, Texas - The Texas Attorney General’s Office issued a warning letter to several large counties and city leaders including Austin Mayor Steve Adler and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhart, alleging local public health orders are exceeding state law.
Mayor Adler took time out of his daily Facebook Live to address the letter. “Up to this point, we’ve been able to focus on the virus in this community without politicizing it and I will not follow the Attorney General’s office down that path,” said Adler.
Adler went down the list of orders the AG’s office states are unlawful and confusing law-abiding citizens.
The letter alleges current orders restrict essential businesses, like houses of worship. Adler said the city’s Stay Home and Work Safe order has consistently changed to complement the changes the governor’s office made. The letter also claims contact tracing recommendations for restaurants raises privacy concerns, one of several issues, Kelsey Erickson Streufert, VP of Government Relations and Advocacy said the Texas Restaurant Association has already raised with the city.
“We were pleased to see the AG’s letter because it echoed some of the concerns we made to Mayor Adler directly on Monday,” said Streufert. “Our concern was that the customer log provisions in Austin’s order were inconsistent, unworkable and wouldn’t improve health and safety.”
The TRA strongly supports contact tracing but doesn’t believe it will be effective if not all businesses are required to do so. Restaurants of a certain size are asked to but like commercial businesses like grocery stores are not.
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The letter also addresses the controversy surrounding face-covering requirements. At the height of the pandemic, health officials urged citizens to refrain from hoarding personal protective equipment meant for hospitals to keep up supply. Weeks into the health crisis, CDC changed course and recommended people utilize face coverings to help slow the spread of the virus.
By mid-March in an effort to start up the Texas economy, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order to reopen the state, giving people the choice to wear a mask. However, Austin leaders and public health leaders say wearing a mask in public is required. The letter states the city nor the county can impose penalties.
“I’ve been very consistent to say we don’t have those penalties,” said Adler. “The penalty we have is some of those people are going to get sick and some of those people are going to die.”
Austin attorney Bill Aleshire interprets the law to ultimately give the city the power to mandate people wear masks under a section of the Emergency Management Act. Local leaders have the power to “control the movement of persons and the occupancy of premises in that area, in the disaster area.”
“If the mayor and the county judge have the support of the public health officials that masks should be required, they should cut up and stand up to the governor, go to court,” Aleshire said. “I think the people of Travis County kind of have the worst of both worlds. A governor who some of us think is being reckless and only recommending masks and not requiring it. On the other side, we have a mayor and our former county judge who I think are being mushy and they’re saying well we make it mandatory, what kind of order is mandatory if you don’t enforce it?”
Adler said the city’s attorneys are reviewing the letter.
“I continue to believe and to maintain that our order is consistent, complimentary of the governor’s order,” Adler said. “In fact, everything we are trying to do right now is to make what the governor is doing a success.”
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