Austin-area businesses will have to post COVID-19 policies, a modest rule that might trigger a fresh clash with state

Throughout the course of the pandemic, local officials have clashed with Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton over what COVID-19 restrictions they could implement in their regions. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the state, Austin and Travis County issued a new joint order Thursday requiring businesses to post signs outlining what safety guidelines they require and general COVID-19 safety information.

The rule could trigger a new clash between Austin and Travis County leaders and Gov. Greg Abbott, who has taken a hard stance against local officials implementing restrictions related to COVID-19. It’s unclear if the local rule is in conflict with previous executive orders. In July, Abbott issued an order limiting local governments’ ability to require face coverings, issue vaccine mandates, or impose pandemic restrictions on businesses’ capacity or operations.

A spokesperson from Abbott’s office condemned the local order.

“This municipal order is preempted by Executive Orders GA-38, GA-39, and GA-40 — all of which remain in full effect. Any business would be within its legal rights to ignore this municipal order,” Abbott spokesperson Nan Tolson said in a statement. “Governor Abbott has been clear that the time for mandates is over; now is the time for personal responsibility.”

However, the local order seems to try to avoid entering into conflict with the state’s rules by leaving it up to businesses as to which — if any — of the safety requirements they implement.

Abbott’s orders ban businesses from using proof of vaccination as a requirement for entry. But Austin and Travis County’s new rule gives businesses a choice as an apparent workaround: Businesses can require customers to show negative COVID-19 tests before entering, or they can choose to accept proof of vaccination instead.

The order requires that, starting next week, businesses display signs that show whether they require employees and customers to wear face coverings, present a negative COVID-19 test or provide proof of vaccination. Hector Nieto, public information officer for Travis County Commissioners Court, said businesses have to display signs even if the business owners have chosen not to adopt any restrictions. Initially, county officials mistakenly said a business did not have to post a sign if it wasn’t implementing any pandemic rules.

Regardless of whether a business has implemented any pandemic-related rules, all businesses must post signs outlining health and safety recommendations by the local health authority during times of elevated risk.

Officials have also made it a criminal offense to not display the signs at each entry of the business. Those found in violation could be subject to a fine of up to $1,000 but would not face jail time.

Throughout the course of the pandemic, local officials have clashed with Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over what COVID-19 restrictions they could implement in their regions.

Last week, a Texas appeals court ruled in favor of Harris County, saying it could defy Abbott’s order and require masks, according to Houston Public Media. That decision was expected to be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

Disclosure: Houston Public Media has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction, Jan. 13, 2022: An earlier version of this story included comments from a Travis County official who erroneously stated that, under new local rules, a business does not need to display a sign showing whether certain COVID-19 restrictions are in place if the firm chose not to implement any. Later, a spokesperson clarified that all businesses must post the sign, regardless of whether they adopted any restrictions.