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People Who Violate Austin Mask Rules Could Be Fined Up To $2,000

Drivers wait in line to get tested for COVID-19 at CommUnityCare Hancock Clinic on July 2.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Drivers wait in line to get tested for COVID-19 at CommUnityCare Hancock Clinic on July 2.

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Austin will now enforce laws that require people to wear facial coverings in public and penalize businesses for not following measures that aim to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

People who violate the mask rules could face a fine of up to $2,000 and could be taken to civil court by the city.

Austin's rules already mandate masks – as does a statewide emergency order from Gov. Greg Abbott – but an ordinance Austin City Council passed unanimously Thursday set up a penalty for not wearing one. There are a handful of exemptions within the rules that line up with the governor's order. Children under 10 and people who have medical conditions that prevent mask-wearing are not required to wear them.

The ordinance also outlines best practices for restaurants and businesses, formally codifying requirements for staff to wear facial coverings, along with mandating social distancing and twice-daily sterilization of high-contact areas.

The rules require construction firms and contractors to limit the number of staff working on a jobsite to 10 people to limit the risk of spread. Foremen will also be required to log who's working when, in the event that someone tests positive for COVID-19.

A second ordinance passed Thursday allows Austin Public Health, with the help of the city, to enforce the rules.

The new rules come as COVID-19 cases surge in Austin, and Travis County teeters on the edge of increased restrictions on businesses to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and avoid inundating hospitals with coronavirus patients.

On Wednesday, Abbott sent a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler giving him and the City Council the nod to move forward with the ordinances, first posted earlier this week.

"What we're doing today doesn't go beyond any existing orders in place," Adler said. "It just gives us additional enforcement means and mechanisms that we would then have."

Local officials across the state have struggled to enforce mandatory distancing, hygiene and mask rules, as Abbott's orders opening the economy ultimately supersede them. City and county officials in Texas' largest cities – including Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston – have all decried the governor's orders, which he argues are grounded in advice from the Department of State Health Services and other medical experts.

Travis County released an accompanying order Thursday that requires facial coverings and bans gatherings of more than 10 people. People found to be in violation of the rule on gatherings could face a fine of up to $1,000; the penalty for not wearing a mask is up to $250.

As mandated by the governor's executive order, there are exceptions to the limit on gatherings. It does not apply to churches, child care centers, swimming pools or amusement parks, among other places.  

Austin is on the brink of moving to the top stage of its risk-based guidelines, which recommend the closure of all nonessential businesses. The guidelines call for closures once the seven-day moving average for COVID-related hospitalizations gets above 70. Austin crossed that threshold Tuesday night, but public health experts are wary of relying too heavily on that metric, which was crafted roughly two months into the pandemic.

Before council's vote, UT epidemiologist Lauren Ancel Meyers told members the five-stage, risk-based guidelines don't properly take into account fluctuations in key metrics like a decrease in the average time spent in ICU and a potential increase in overall hospital capacity – especially as the county prepares to convert the Austin Convention Center into a temporary hospital.

Meyers said the transmission of coronavirus appears to have slowed since early June, but there's still "critical uncertainty" ahead.

"It is unclear whether current behavioral and policy changes will be sufficient to prevent unmanageable hospital and ICU surges," she said.

As of Tuesday, Austin's three major hospitals said their ICU beds are 85% full. Meyers said the ordinances would help "cultivate a culture of caution" that could help hospitals avoid being overrun.

Dr. Mark Escott, interim medical director for Austin Public Health, said the city and Travis County need to continue conversations with state leadership and urge Abbott to revert to stage 1 of his reopening plan, which would dial back restaurant and retail capacity to 25%.

Absent that, Escott said there's no telling if, or when, capacity could be reached.

"None of us want to shut down, but none of us are absolutely clear that what we're doing so far is slowing things enough to avoid exceeding capacity," he said. "So I think it's time to tap the brakes again."

This story has been updated.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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