The Common Law

COVID-19 and Austin – answering your legal questions (part 4)

“The Common Law,” which typically runs monthly, has started to address your COVID-19 questions on a weekly basis. You ask. We’ll do our best to answer for as long as we remain in a period of uncertainty. Here are more questions and quick answers:

I’ve heard the mayor issued a new order with more limitations. Is that right? What are the high points of what it says?

Yes. Mayor Adler signed a new COVID-19 order, No. 20200413-009, on April 13. It builds upon previous orders to extend COVID-19 related limitations until at least May 8, 2020.

One of the biggest changes in the most current order is the requirement to wear face coverings. The order requires that anyone who leaves their residence that is over the age of 10 must wear some form of covering over their nose and mouth. The mask can be homemade, such as a scarf, bandana, or handkerchief. The order reiterated the previous social distancing requirements, namely that non-household members must maintain at least a six-foot distance from other individuals if they leave the house for essential activities. The order also requires that all non-essential businesses and operations must stop operation. Read the order in full here.

Several large families (five people or more) in my neighborhood walk around or ride bikes without masks. Aren’t they required to wear masks?

Yes, if they can’t maintain consistent separation of six feet or more. There’s a lot of confusion over the shelter-in-place requirement and its relationship to outdoor activities. Here’s the deal – as a general rule, the order requires all of us to stay at home; however, the order calls out several “essential activities” that serve as exceptions to the requirement to stay at home. One “essential activity” is “outdoor activity.” The new order says that Austinites can engage in outdoor activity, defined as, “by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, or running,” as long as they comply with social distancing requirements and face covering requirements. But then the order creates another exception by stating that folks are excepted from the face covering requirement for outdoor activities if they are a) alone in a separate single outdoor space or b) they maintain consistent separation of six feet or more while engaging in outdoor activity.

Applying the new order to your question, the folks you’ve seen on your neighborhood streets are not in a separate outdoor space. So, it all comes down to whether they can maintain consistent separation of six feet or more. If yes, the order does not require face masks. If not, the order requires them to wear face masks. My recommendation – folks leaving their house for a friendly stroll should bring masks in the event they find themselves in a situation where you can’t maintain six feet or more of separation.

There’s a house in my neighborhood that has half-a-dozen to a dozen people sitting around in the front yard drinking wine most Sundays. Everyone is seated pretty far apart, but still, it annoys me as it seems like they are being careless. Is this allowed under current city rules? Can I call the police and have them get a ticket?

If these folks all co-habitate in the same residence, then it would be allowed. If not, the city’s current order prohibits this activity. The city’s order identifies several “essential activities,” all of which serve as legitimate reasons folks are allowed to leave their house. For example, you can leave the house to get medical attention, necessary supplies (trips to grocery store or gas station), to take care of others, or for outdoor activity. Drinking and/or socializing with neighbors and friends is not, however, considered an “essential activity.” The closest thing to it would be “outdoor activity”; however, it’s unlikely that drinking wine and hanging out would be considered similar to walking, hiking, or running (the three examples of outdoor activities provided in the order). Gatherings of more than 10 people is also prohibited, which creates another problem with the activity.

Violation of the city’s order is a criminal offense, although enforcement is lax. The city’s order expressly acknowledges that its limitations rely on “self-regulation and a community commitment to public health and safety.” If there is not widespread compliance with the city’s order, including face masks, the city may increase enforcement efforts. The city asks that social distancing violations be reported to 3-1-1 (the city specifically does not want folks calling in complaints to 9-1-1).

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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