The information contained in this Know Your Rights content was originally published on April 1, 2020. Since then, Governor Abbott signed a new executive order on April 27 announcing a phased reopening affecting certain businesses and services around the state. Please check back to this page for updates.
This content is intended to serve as general information; it is not legal advice nor intended as legal advice.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced local, state, and federal governments worldwide to take urgent action to protect public health. This includes implementing orders that require people to stay home as a way to help combat the spread of the deadly virus. But in the U.S., these orders do not trump all of your constitutional rights.
The ACLU of Texas urges everyone to read and follow their local stay-home orders for the sake of their own health and the health of the entire community. Learn more about what your rights are, and how to protect them, even during a public health crisis.
What are stay-home, shelter-in-place, and work-safe orders?
Many cities and counties across the country, as well as here in Texas, have put into place various stay-home, shelter-in-place, and work-safe orders to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dozens of counties in Texas have enacted such orders so far. The governor, the Texas Supreme Court, and various governmental agencies have also sent out rules and guidance to respond to this public health emergency.
Am I required to follow stay-home orders related to COVID-19?
Yes! The Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the State of Texas and local governments authority to respond to emergencies, including pandemics. Once the governor and local governments declare a state of emergency, they may create emergency management plans that control the movement of people when it is “necessary for the preservation of life or other disaster mitigation.” Most emergency plans that have been implemented are grounded in guidance from public health experts and designed to save lives.
Are stay-home orders constitutional?
Likely, yes. There is no question that national, state, and local governments can — and should — respond to emergencies and natural disasters. When government actions during a state of emergency interfere with your constitutional rights, its actions may still be constitutional.
However, the government's power is not unlimited; you still have constitutional rights under these types of orders. The U.S. Supreme Court tells us as much, stating that the Constitution still applies even in times of crisis. As governments respond to this public health crisis, the measures they take to protect public health can still be examined in court.
May I leave my house during this pandemic?
Each stay-home, shelter-in-place, and work-safe order in Texas requires you to stay at your place of residence whenever possible. But each order also contains numerous exceptions that allow you to leave your home under certain circumstances. It is very important that you read your own local order to determine which exceptions apply.
In most cases, you may leave your home to engage in “essential activities.” This includes things like visiting a grocery store, pharmacy, or other business that sells food, medicine, or other supplies. You may also engage in outdoor activities such as walking or biking, but most playgrounds are closed. Even outside, you must practice social distancing and stay six feet apart from anyone you encounter. There are also other approved reasons to leave your home, such as seeking medical care and working for an essential business, healthcare provider, or government job. Again, it is important that you read your local stay-home order to know the exact details.
Do I need a letter from my employer if I work in an essential business?
No. Although some employers are giving their employees letters to say that they work at an essential business these letters are not required by any current stay-home order. There is no show-me-your-papers rule requiring you to carry documentation or provide any proof about who you are or where you work.
What if I am stopped by the police while I am outside of my home?
Stay calm and remember that you have rights. You have a right to remain silent and you also have a right to film the police. Learn more details about your rights when interacting with law enforcement with our other Know Your Rights materials:
Can I be fined, arrested, or jailed for violating these orders?
Possibly. The Texas Disaster Act allows for enforcement of emergency plans with up to a $1,000 fine or 6 months of jail time. However, the ACLU of Texas urges all police officers, sheriffs, and other government officials to first educate the public and warn people about this public health crisis — and only use fines or jail time as an absolute last resort, since these measures exacerbate the economic fallout from COVID-19 and accelerate the spread of the virus in local jails.
What if I am experiencing homelessness and do not have a place to stay?
Most cities and counties with stay-home orders have an explicit exemption for individuals experiencing homelessness. If you do not have a place to stay during this pandemic, you should not be criminalized or punished for failing to stay at home. Instead, you should try to practice social distancing as best you can and try seeking shelter or assistance from a local government or nonprofit in your area. To find homelessness service providers visit the Texas Homelessness Network website.