Social Justice Advocates Call for Big Moves to Ease the Blow of Coronavirus

The most at risk

Panic-buying at Fiesta and other grocers concerns workers' advocates who fear low-wage service employees are at increased risk of COVID-19. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Advocates from a large number of local social justice and advocacy organizations are calling on city and county leaders to step up and help those most marginalized in the community amid the escalating coronavirus outbreak.

In a letter sent on Monday, March 16, to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, City Council, the Travis County Commissioners Court, and other officials, the advocates offered an extensive and comprehensive list of demands that target public education; welfare; housing; worker, immigrant, and disability rights; medical services; child­ care; elder care; law enforcement; courts; and jails.

Among their recommendations, the groups urged city officials to take a "firm stance" on social distancing to help slow the spread of COVID-19 – limiting operations and hours of businesses like bars and restaurants to keep those most susceptible among us safe, as the city and county announced on Tuesday. "We know from other major cities that Austin's community outbreaks are more likely to occur within our most vulnerable populations," said Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Employees Association, during a (virtual) press conference Monday morning. "Given that we face an unprecedented situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, community advocates believe it warrants an unprecedented, swift, and necessary response from local and county authorities with the power to save and protect as many of the most vulnerable people as possible."

With ICUs already at limited capacity, Xie expects critical care transports to increase and urges local leaders to ensure patient treatment supplies like respirators, IV medication pumps, updated ventilators, and portable ultrasound units are well stocked – equipment that hasn't been available to EMS, she said. On Tuesday, Austin Interim Public Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott – who is filling that post while also continuing to serve as EMS medical director – told reporters the city and county are working to ensure "adequate training, adequate personal protective equipment, and adequate access to testing" to EMS and other first responders.

Release for the Prisoners

The crisis is especially daunting for those in overcrowded jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers, the groups stress. "We know that medical care is less than adequate and there are many deaths in these facilities every year, and in times of crisis, conditions of confinement only worsen," said Claudia Muñoz, acting executive co-director at Grassroots Leadership. Immigrants should receive health care regardless of status and be protected from interaction with ICE and CBP when accessing those services, she said.

In an effort to decarcerate, organizations also recommend law enforcement limit instances of taking people into custody and should maximize use of cite-and-release for as many offenses as possible. They're calling on the courts to reduce activity as well, including suspending class C misdemeanor cases and probation, parole, and pretrial meetings.

Also on Monday, José Garza, candidate for district attorney, sent his own letter to city and county officials calling for radical changes in criminal justice in response to COVID-19, focusing attention on the danger the virus poses to the 2,000 people locked up in Central Texas. Garza wrote "locked down facilities like jails have incredibly high rates of infection. ... Time and again, jails and prisons have been hotbeds for the spread of disease."

With this in mind, Garza called for temporarily ending arrests for misdemeanors and state jail felonies unless doing so creates a risk to public safety, and for immediately releasing those in county jail who don't pose a public safety risk, using personal bonds if necessary. He also urged that local law enforcement authorities publicly disclose the protocols they will use for testing and treating inmates and seeking to halt the spread of the disease.

Garza, who like other candidates has suspended in-person campaigning, emphasized that his platform, including his call to abolish cash bail, demonstrates the link between criminal justice reform and public safety in a time of crisis. "Every day, our cash bail system destabilizes our communities, and now it threatens our response to a rapidly spreading infectious disease," he said.

Incumbent D.A. Margaret Moore responded to both Garza and the justice advocates on Monday, saying, "Now is not the time for politics. This is a serious issue affecting the most critical areas of public safety, justice administration, and community confidence ... I am using all my years of experience as a prosecutor, elected official, and public administrator to meet the challenge." She noted that all court proceedings in Travis Coun­ty have basically been put on hiatus until early May, and that her office continues "to work with the judges to see that only those who pose a risk to public safety remain in our jail. The coronavirus does not affect that policy – it only affects how we make sure our processes are conducted safely."

“We are asking local elected officials to take bold, decisive steps to do everything in their power to make sure that the most vulnerable workers in our community have the ability to protect themselves.” – Ana Gonzalez of the Workers Defense Project

Helping Workers Survive

As low-wage workers will be among the hardest hit by COVID-19 workplace disruptions, the organizations offer steps that can be taken by city officials and businesses to help working-class employees. They say the city should partner with local philanthropic institutions and employers to establish a fund for workers who become unemployed or underemployed due to strained wages. (The city and county have begun to gather and promote their existing resources to help residents and businesses facing economic insecurity.)

"We deeply need urgent action [from philanthropic groups] to fend off the impending economic crisis ... by creating funds that support hourly wage workers and those working in the domestic and service industries, as well as supportive actions to aid the businesses that employ the workers so [that] when the pandemic passes, our people and our city's livelihood are sustained," said Kandace Vallejo with Youth Rise Texas.

While a citywide paid sick leave policy is still under attack from right-wing state leaders, advocates urge businesses to implement paid sick leave and expand unemployment insurance eligibility; stop all city construction work; and require all nonessential government employees to work from home. Austin Energy, which handles billing for all city utilities, has already suspended service shut-offs and is working with those who've recently been disconnected to restore service (call 512/494-9400 if you need help). The advocates call for similar steps to be taken by natural gas and telecommunications providers; they also urged a halt to evictions, which Travis County has put in place, and passing a rent control ordinance.

"We are asking local elected officials to take bold, decisive steps to do everything in their power to make sure that the most vulnerable workers in our community have the ability to protect themselves from the spread of COVID-19 by making it possible for them to stay home without risking their ability to meet the basic needs of their families," said Ana Gonzalez with the Workers Defense Project. The advocates also recommended a review of the legality of levying a temporary tax on large corporations and wealthy community members to fund initiatives aimed at mitigating the impact of COVID-19.

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COVID-19, social justice, Selena Xie, Mark Escott, Claudia Muñoz, Grassroots Leadership, José Garza, Margaret Moore, low-wage workers, Kandace Vallejo, Youth Rise Texas, Ana Gonzalez, Workers Defense Project, criminal justice, coronavirus

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