We know that all Texans are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus cases in our state and across the country. This situation requires a large-scale response from state and local leaders. We’re counting on them to protect the health and safety of all Texans, and our rights and civil liberties. We sent the below letter to Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick, the Commissioner of Health and Human Services, and the mayors of Texas’ ten largest cities, urging that civil rights and civil liberties not take a backseat as we respond to this situation.
Even in a public health emergency, the government must make every effort to protect the rights of people experiencing illness or at risk of illness. This includes due process rights, protections for vulnerable populations such as incarcerated people, and equal ability to access care regardless of immigration status.
As you take the necessary precautions to protect your health and that of your loved ones, know that the ACLU will be watching closely to make sure that the government's response is scientifically justified and no more intrusive on civil liberties than absolutely necessary. We will continue to update you on this work in the weeks ahead.
Dear Governor Abbott,
As you respond to COVID-19, please consider the ACLU of Texas as a resource in your work to develop a response plan that protects the health, safety, and civil liberties of all Texans.
During a disease outbreak, we recognize that individual rights may need to be balanced against that of the larger community. We would be glad to meet with you or your staff to discuss how you can keep the public safe while preserving the liberties that are the foundation of American ideals and our democratic system of government.
As you consider measures to keep the public safe, we encourage you to consider the following:
Ensure measures that limit people’s movements are supported by science and proportional to the threat. We strongly encourage you to consider voluntary isolation measures as an alternative to quarantines or other mandatory restrictions, to the extent possible and as supported by scientific evidence. Keep in mind that individuals have a due process right to challenge a quarantine order. Mechanisms of appeal should be clear and transparent in any quarantine or movement-restricting policy.
Keep the public informed with accurate, timely information. Public officials should be trusted messengers of vital public health information, grounded in scientific evidence. We encourage you to maintain multiple channels of communication that are accessible to all audiences, on- and off-line, and in the top languages spoken in Texas.
Protect vulnerable populations. Public health experts stress the need to protect vulnerable populations during an outbreak. Vulnerable populations have been defined as those without adequate health insurance or access to regular medical care. Responses to the virus, including testing, must be available to all Texans, regardless of whether they have health insurance.
We are especially concerned about people in prison or jail, who are vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses and have limited ability to inform themselves about risks and take preventative measures. Incarcerated individuals have historically faced harm during outbreaks and disasters in Texas. We encourage state and local officials to reduce the number of people currently incarcerated, including by releasing those who are in pre-trial detention because of unaffordable bail. Special effort is required to ensure that people who remain incarcerated in jail or prison, in addition to prison guards and staff, stay healthy during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Everyone should feel confident to get tested. If they are experiencing symptoms, immigrants may be hesitant to visit a hospital or testing facility, frustrating efforts to mitigate spread of the virus. Health care facilities should be declared and publicized as safe zones, where no immigration enforcement will take place. It is in the best interests of all Texans for everyone to feel confident that they can come forward to be tested.
- Enlist employers to ensure that people who are sick can afford to stay home. We all face increased risk if people with symptoms of COVID-19 don’t stay home from work for fear of missing a paycheck. Government can play a vital role in encouraging employers to offer sick leave and other supportive measures for workers to keep the community safe.
As you work to keep our communities safe and strong, we are happy to meet in person or by phone to discuss how best to protect civil liberties in your COVID-19 response planning. Please contact [us] if we can be of service.
ACLU of Texas
cc: Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick; Executive Commissioner Dr. Courtney N. Phillips, Texas Health and Human Services; Mayor Jeff Williams, City of Arlington; Mayor Steve Adler, City of Austin; Mayor Joe McComb, City of Corpus Christi; Mayor Eric Johnson, City of Dallas; Mayor Dee Margo, City of El Paso; Mayor Betsy Price, City of Fort Worth; Mayor Sylvester Turner, City of Houston; Mayor Pete Saenz, City of Laredo; Mayor Harry LaRosiliere, City of Plano; Mayor Ron Nirenberg, City of San Antonio