In early November, as health officials warned of a impending COVID-19 spike, Austin Mayor Steve Adler hosted an outdoor wedding and reception with 20 guests for his daughter at a trendy hotel near downtown.
The next morning, Adler and seven other wedding attendees boarded a private jet bound for Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where they vacationed for a week at a family timeshare.
One night into the trip, Adler addressed Austin residents in a Facebook video: “We need to stay home if you can. This is not the time to relax. We are going to be looking really closely. … We may have to close things down if we are not careful.”
In hosting the wedding and traveling internationally, Adler said he broke neither his own order or those established by Gov. Greg Abbott.
But at the time, the city was recommending people not gather in groups of more than 10, and the day after Adler’s departure, Austin’s health authority warned that “it’s important that we drive the (COVID-19) numbers down in advance of Thanksgiving.”
As he pressed the public to help stop the spread of the virus in recent weeks, Adler had not previously disclosed details of his private actions. He gave no indication in his Facebook video that he was outside the city as he discussed Austin’s rising number of cases and reviewed the number of hospital patients.
In an interview this week with the American-Statesman, the mayor said he and his family put hours of consideration into how to hold an intimate event and vacation as safely as possible. He said he consulted with interim health director Dr. Mark Escott prior to the wedding at the Hotel St. Cecilia on South Congress Avenue and established rules to ensure guests’ safety. The 20 attendees had to undergo a rapid COVID-19 test and maintain social distancing, he said.
Adler added that masks were distributed, although he acknowledged that guests were “probably not” wearing them all the time.
“At that point, I am with my family group and people who just tested,” he said. “It is not perfect. Obviously, there are infections that could happen, but I think all of us should be minimizing risks as best we can.”
In a media briefing the day after Adler’s party left for Cabo on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Escott told the public: “If you’re going out to a restaurant, go out with your family, the people who live in your household, not with family and friends outside your household and start to decrease those travels outside of your home that are not necessary.”
A month later, City Hall insiders and political operatives have quietly started questioning the actions of Adler, a Democrat serving his second term, as officials across the country have been found breaking their own rules or recommendations.
Last week, Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell, a Republican, paid a $1,000 fine for violating his stay home order by visiting his grandson on his birthday after donning fire protection equipment. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, a Democrat, issued a public apology after urging residents not to travel for Thanksgiving, then flying to Missisissippi to see his family. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom, also a Democrat, was recently caught at a posh restaurant at a large table without a mask.
The situation underscores the greater-than-normal scrutiny on public officials during the pandemic as they issue public pleas for people to take coronavirus precautions and balance other demands in their personal lives.
Political opponents often are standing guard to capitalize on any misstep or hint of hypocrisy.
Adler has been involved heavily in the city’s COVID-19 response, taking what many considered a bold and politically risky step in March of canceling the South by Southwest Festival, a premier event and economic boon for the city, days before the first local cases were confirmed. He has appeared on national TV cable shows discussing the city’s measures to help stop the spread of the virus.
Adler said his conduct is different from other officials because he did not behave in a way that was inconsistent with his message at the time. He added that his actions did not violate his regulations.
“Everyday since March, I repeat that being home is the safest place for people to be,” Adler said in a statement Wednesday. “Only at our most trying moments, like around Thanksgiving, have I asked people not to travel as part of extra precautions. It is safest to stay home. However, we aren’t asking people to never venture out. We ask everyone to be as safe as possible when they do.”
The rate of people testing positive in Austin was less than 4% but started climbing after Adler was in Mexico. New cases rose dramatically as Thanksgiving neared.
Adler said his daughter wanted a much larger wedding but, due to the pandemic, downsized to mostly parents and siblings, some of whom flew into Austin. The event also included a Seattle-based wedding photographer.
“She, like so many other brides, was having to make adjustments in order to stay compliant with the orders from the health director here in Austin and the orders I issued as mayor,” he said. “My daughter and my family are no exception.”
Under Texas Department of Health guidelines, wedding planners are urged to hold events outside but are not subject to an occupancy limit. Indoor weddings must have a 75% occupancy cap.
At the time, Austin was under Stage 3 recommendations, meaning that people should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and only higher risk people were urged to avoid non-essential travel.
Adler said the eight people with whom he traveled to Mexico operated as a “COVID pod,” meaning that they had all agreed to the same safety guidelines.
“There was no recommendation for people not to travel during that period of time,” he said. “Someone could look at me and say, ‘He traveled.’ But what they could not say is that I traveled at a time when I was telling other people not to travel.”
Adler said that he does not believe he took a test upon his return to Austin but “generally quarantined.”
The U.S. in March limited inbound land crossings from Mexico to essential travel, but the prohibition did not prevent citizens from returning home. And while the U.S. outbreak has prompted many countries, including much of Europe, to ban American travelers, air travel to Mexico has been allowed during the pandemic, making it one of the few countries that has continued to allow American tourists without stringent restrictions.
Days before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Americans to “avoid all travel to Mexico” because of the spiking coronavirus infections.
On Nov. 19, the week after Adler’s return, health officials raised the city’s alert level to Stage 4, which included a recommendation that all people avoid travel that is not necessary.
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