Regular readers of our Texas Municipal Law Blog know that we recently wrote about Gov. Abbott’s Disaster Declaration issued in March for all Texas counties in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The governor has twice issued 30-day extensions of the declaration. If a third one is issued, it would likely arrive in mid-June.
The governor took action to make video conferencing and phone conferencing easier under the Texas Open Meetings Act, suspending sections of the Texas Government Code until further notice or until the disaster declaration expires.
A few days ago, the governor issued another executive order to help the state’s cities and counties deal with the complex intersection of the law and a response to the public health dangers posed by the pandemic. This time, Abbott issued an order suspending in-person visitations at municipal and county jails.
Government officials should note that the temporary suspension doesn’t apply to visits by attorneys meeting with clients who are in custody. It also does not apply to religious leaders or members of the clergy.
The governor’s office in Austin issued a statement that the latest order “adds another layer of defense to contain COVID-19 hot spots, prevent community spread, and protect staff and inmates.”
However, Abbott also encouraged jail officials to implement plans that allow virtual visitations that will simultaneously protect those in the inmate population, their visitors and correctional staff members.
A thoughtful and properly implemented visitation strategy could help cities and counties to avoid litigation in an already difficult time.