Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Gov. Greg Abbott’s plans to reopen Texas’ economy aligns with the city’s. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Although Austin and Travis County’s stay-home order was extended to May 8, parts of the community, including retail shops, will begin softly reopening this week at the behest of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
The governor’s plans appear to rub against local orders to mitigate the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, but Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the city agrees with Abbott’s strategy and aligns with expert advice city leaders have heard from medical experts and coronavirus modelers. Adler said the city will not challenge the governor’s orders.
On April 17, Abbott handed down plans to reopen state parks by April 20, loosen bans on nonessential medical procedures by April 21 and implement a retail-to-go strategy for April 24 that would allow retail shops across the state to open if transactions between employees and customers remained contactless.
As anticipation grew last week over Abbott’s plans to begin reopening the state, there were some questions over how it would affect more restrictive local orders that were in place through early May. Adler said state law allows the city to pass its own orders as long as they are not inconsistent with mandates explicitly handed down by the governor.
Dr. Mark Escott, the interim health authority for Austin and Travis County, said the success of a retail-to-go model depends on the community’s ability to reduce to person-to-person contact. Abbott’s guidance on reopening retail shops was “pretty prescriptive,” Escott said. Customers still cannot enter stores; employees must be carefully screened for symptoms such as cough or fever before coming into work, regularly wash their hands and wear face masks.
However, Escott said he does not want the effort toward soft reopening to give people the wrong idea about the virus.
“This should not be seen as an indication that we’re over [the coronavirus],” Escott told Austin City Council on April 21. “This thing has not gone away, and it is not going away.”
He said the “peak” in cases will only be determined by the community’s actions and its vigilance in social distancing and mitigating the spread of the virus. The further into the future the community can push the peak, the more time society will have to develop a vaccine or treatment.
Face coverings are crucial to mitigating the spread of the virus, and failure to wear one while performing most activities away from home can result in criminal penalty following the city and county’s April 13 mandate. Adler said the city does not have enough law enforcement officers to adequately enforce the measures and that it will be up to the community’s vigilance. Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison encouraged businesses that are conducting curbside or window service to require customers to wear a face mask in order to receive service.
As of April 20, Travis County has seen 1,174 confirmed cases of coronavirus since March 13, with 26 deaths and 293 recoveries, according to numbers from the Travis County coronavirus dashboard.