Under relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, Austin residents can dine out, get a manicure, visit a water park, or go to a club or bar — but they’re still forbidden from visiting a neighbor’s home, or arranging a playdate for a child.
The growing disconnect between reality and the letter of the law was on display this past weekend as thousands attended mass protests despite stay-home orders technically prohibiting such gatherings.
Even before the recent protests, there was widespread disregard for local public health orders, in part because of confusion about the lifting of restrictions by state orders.
Governor Greg Abbott allowed a statewide stay-home order to expire a month ago and overrode local orders keeping businesses closed. He also blocked local governments from imposing fines for refusing to comply with mask-wearing orders.
But Abbott didn’t prevent local governments from leaving in place stay-home orders affecting social life and community gatherings, which in any case have gone largely unenforced.
Last Friday, May 29, Austin Mayor Steve Adler renewed his existing stay-home order through June 15. The latest order says, “All individuals currently living within the City of Austin are ORDERED to stay at home or at their place of residence and to practice Social Distancing and Face Covering Behaviors… unless excepted by this Order.”
Exceptions include the same ones that were in place at the height of the pandemic, such as visiting a grocery store, but now also include visits to any businesses reopened by the governor.
The order itself acknowledge that it is without teeth: “While a violation of this Order is a criminal offense… enforcement of this Order is substantially reliant on self-regulation and a community commitment to public health and safety under the novel threat of COVID-19.”
Adler’s order offers contradicting direction on social gatherings. On the one hand, it explicitly prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people, which implies that gatherings of 10 or fewer people are allowed. But how can gatherings take place if people are ordered to “stay home”?
In effect, the mayor is discouraging small social gatherings, without expressly prohibiting them — but also without expressly saying that they’re allowed. The order says, “All social indoor or outdoor gatherings outside of a single household or dwelling should be avoided or minimized” (emphasis added). (“Should” in legal documents is often used to make a recommendation. “Shall” is used for a requirement).
As of June 1, there have been over 64,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas, and over 1,600 Texans have died. Travis County has had 3,272 cases, and 93 people have died.
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the virus spreads mainly through droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The CDC says on its website, “These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Spread is more likely when people are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).”
The mayor’s full order is available for download here. For the Honest Austin take on this, please read our May 19 editorial, “ Small Social Gatherings Shouldn’t Be Prohibited in Texas.”