Amidst COVID-19 Surge, Austin-Travis County Moves to Stage 5 Restrictions

Officials urge extreme caution over holiday break

“We are very concerned about the bars operating as restaurants.” Dr. Mark Escott stressed that if bars follow the rules – including keeping patrons seated, at safe distances, and masked – then they hope to avoid implementing a curfew. “It’s not the places; it’s the behavior,” Mayor Steve Adler added. (photo by John Anderson)

Austin Public Health announced today that the city and county have moved into Stage 5 – the highest level of local pandemic restrictions – of Austin-Travis County’s COVID-19 Risk-Based Guidelines.

Local officials are urging all residents regardless of their risk level to avoid non-household gatherings, dining, and shopping, as well as recommending that local businesses transition to delivery and curbside services amidst what Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott called an “ongoing worsening condition” in the uncontrolled widespread community transmission of COVID-19.

“This is the time. We are sounding the alarm. I am my brother’s and sister’s keeper.” – Director of Austin Public Health Stephanie Hayden

This is the first time Austin-Travis County has declared Stage 5 since first introducing the risk guidelines in May. The announcement comes less than a week after Austin’s seven-day moving average for COVID-19 hospitalizations hit the qualifying threshold for Stage 5 restrictions of 50 hospitalizations; that metric was revised down just prior to Thanksgiving.

Local health officials are transitioning to Stage 5 out of concern for the possible impact of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays on transmission rates following a surge in local COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations due to Thanksgiving gatherings. Since the beginning of the month, Austin Public Health has reported a 97% increase in cases, in addition to an 80% increase in the moving average of hospital admissions and a 50% increase in the overall number of hospital beds being utilized for COVID-19 patients.

Officials have said previously that mandating a curfew could be considered should Austin enter Stage 5. For now, restaurants are encouraged – but not mandated – to close indoor dining spaces and limit outdoor dining capacity to 50%, said Travis County Judge Andy Brown in a press conference this morning. Officials are also recommending that indoor retail capacity be limited to 50% and all dining and retail services be shut down between 10:30pm-5am. Should a surge continue despite these recommendations, officials might then consider requiring more significant measures.

“Both county and city departments participating in enforcement are going to continue with increased inspections and enforcement,” said Brown. “We’re going to hold bad actors accountable and issue citations when deemed necessary.”

Read more in next week’s issue, in print and on stands on Wednesday.

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