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Update: COVID-19 Response and Governmental Actions in Texas

Update: COVID-19 Response and Governmental Actions in Texas

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has resulted in profound disruptions across America and the state of Texas. While the political and legal landscape is constantly and rapidly changing, as of Friday, March 20, 2020, these are the governmental actions that have most affected Texas cities and their governing bodies.

On March 13, 2020, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a disaster proclamation for COVID-19, certifying the virus as an imminent threat of disaster for all Texas counties. On March 19, the governor issued an executive order, effective through midnight April 3, that instructs all Texans to avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people. In addition, the executive order closes all bars, dine-in restaurants, gyms, and massage parlors statewide, and restricts nursing home visitors to those providing critical care. This order does not mandate “sheltering in place,” although at the time of this writing, the states of New York and California have instituted nearly total lockdowns of their civilian populations, and Texas could join them at any time.

In addition to the governor’s declaration of disaster for the entire state of Texas, many counties and cities have chosen to declare a state of disaster for their own jurisdictions. The mayor of a city must have declared a disaster in order to request federal disaster recovery assistance, and the local declaration allows a city to institute emergency measures that could be more restrictive than the state’s and apply only within the city limits (for example, ordering a city-wide evacuation or quarantine).

The mayor of a city can declare a state of disaster without approval of the city council, but council approval is required to extend or continue the declaration beyond seven days. A city council can approve an extended disaster declaration or order other emergency measures in an emergency meeting, which requires only one hour’s notice under relaxed notice requirements.

In addition, the governor has suspended portions of the Texas Open Meetings Act, effective March 16. Specifically, cities are allowed to conduct meetings by video or telephone conference and there need not be a quorum physically present at the meeting place. However, a quorum must still participate, and the notice of the meeting must provide a phone number or video link so that the public can “attend” the meeting and participate in two-way communication over the conference call or video link. Notice of the meeting must still be posted online but not necessarily physically posted at the meeting location.

The governor’s current executive order does not specifically limit local governmental services but the governor has taken other emergency measures that will require cities to make significant adjustments.

The governor’s March 13 emergency proclamation means that cities can now calculate its property tax rate using the 8 percent multiplier instead of the new mandated 3.5 percent multiplier. Any city wishing to make the calculation at a higher rate will need to take formal action to do so, and numerous qualifiers and exceptions would apply.

In addition, a city that has been impacted by the catastrophe may send a notice to the Attorney General, in a form provided by the AG, that it elects to suspend the requirements of the Texas Public Information Act (specifically, the city’s required response to a citizen’s open records request). However, the suspension can only last for a maximum of 14 days.

On March 18, the governor issued a proclamation allowing all cities the option of postponing their May 2 elections until November 3. The city must take formal action to enact the postponement, which must be done on or before April 20.

Moreover, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was passed by Congress on March 18, expands the Family and Medical Leave Act to require all employers with fewer than 500 employees, including cities, to provide job-protected leave to any employee unable to work due to the employee’s need to care for a child.

Obviously, this article is just a summary of the many adjustments that cities will have to make in response to COVID-19. Please speak to a qualified municipal attorney regarding the details and practical and legal ramifications of these changes.

Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal law practice can be found here.

Drew Shirley is a Houston attorney with experience in tort and business litigation and business and real estate transactions. Shirley graduated cum laude from Duke University, then received two advanced degrees – a master’s in journalism and a law degree – from the University of Texas at Austin. He joined the Randle Law Office in 2015.

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