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State of Emergency: How Cities Play a Role in Responding to COVID-19 and Other Disasters

In recent weeks, the COVID-19 virus has been at the forefront of the news and the minds of most people. The federal government and many state governments have taken steps to set regulations in an effort to help contain or slow the spread of the deadly virus. The federal government has implemented travel restrictions from highly infected areas, temporarily closed schools, and even recommended that people avoid congregating in groups of more than 10 during the next couple of weeks. All of these precautions are aimed at preventing, or at least slowing the spread of the contagion.

The actions of local government also play a very important role in keeping citizens protected. No one is in a better position to know the needs and concerns of their community than the mayors and local officials who oversee them each and every day. Several U.S. cities have taken action to curtail the spread at a local level. In New York City and Los Angeles, the cities have required bars and restaurants to close temporarily in an effort to prevent new infections. In a previous blog post, our firm discussed some of the “super powers” which a mayor can possess during a state of local disaster in Texas.

Under Texas law, a mayor can declare a local state of disaster whenever a disaster has occurred or is imminent. This means that a mayor does not necessarily have to wait for a contagious outbreak to reach their specific community before he or she can take action. As discussed in a previous blog post, there are a number of events which qualify as a disaster under state law and permit a mayor to declare a local state of disaster, including epidemics such as COVID-19.

In Texas, each city is required to prepare and keep current a local emergency management plan or an interjurisdictional emergency management plan. These plans are in place to provide for disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Once a mayor declares a local state of disaster, the emergency management plan comes into play. At a minimum, these plans must include: (1)  wage, price, and rent controls and other economic stabilization methods in the event of a disaster;  and (2)  curfews, blockades, and limitations on utility use in an area affected by a disaster, rules governing entrance to and exit from the affected area, and other security measures. Under state law, each plan must be reviewed annually and updated at least once every five years.

Once a local emergency is declared, cities can take action to control prices in order to stabilize the economy and prevent price gouging. These protections help to ensure that the next roll of toilet paper you purchase won’t cost an arm and a leg. Further, during a local state of disaster, the mayor can institute curfews and even prevent people from entering or leaving the affected areas within their jurisdiction. In the coming weeks, several communities may begin to utilize such powers to restrict travel, implement curfews, and regulate prices of essential groceries. In fact, in extreme instances, the city council may even request that the governor provide state military forces to aid in controlling conditions in the city. During this outbreak it will be extremely important for all levels of government, including local government to work together to help keep citizens safe.

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.

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