As economy begins to reopen, Austin leaders plan for second lockdown, surge in cases

Austin and Travis County officials have extended their stay-home orders, emphasizing the role that reducing social interaction has on slowing the coronavirus's spread. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin and Travis County officials have extended their stay-home orders, emphasizing the role that reducing social interaction has on slowing the coronavirus's spread. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin and Travis County officials have extended their stay-home orders, emphasizing the role that reducing social interaction has on slowing the coronavirus's spread. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Today, Austin barbershops, hair salons and gyms began welcoming clients for the first time since March 25.

This comes exactly one week after restaurants, movie theaters and malls reopened their doors as part of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s phased approach at awakening the state’s economy from a prolonged shutdown meant to mitigate the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.

During that shutdown, which included a stay-home order that prohibited nonessential activity, Austin and Travis County residents reduced their person-to-person interactions by 95%, which officials said is an astounding achievement that helped to dampen what they expected to be a rapid rise in local confirmed coronavirus cases.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he believes that the decision to have the state and cities “dip our toe” into reopening will, "by definition," result in a second surge in infections, as person-to-person interactions will increase.

“The virus is just as infectious today as it was a month ago,” Adler said during a May 8 press conference, in which he extended his stay-home order through the end of May. Adler said Abbott’s decision to reopen happened earlier "than [he] would have liked” and that the message from local officials was to continue staying home as much as possible.

Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said they are already working with the local chamber of commerce to plan for a second surge and for a potential second lockdown of local commerce.

Eckhardt, who extended the county's stay-home order through mid-June, said Austin Public Health officials, elected leaders and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce are working together on an emergency plan should the community see a surge in cases following the reopening.

“We’re in a yellow light—we’re cautiously beginning to open commerce,” Eckhardt said; however, she said area leaders, experts and stakeholders are developing plans for what to do if the community hits “a red light.”

Eckhardt and Adler said planning has involved, for one, putting triggers in place for hospitalizations over time, which would alert officials that a surge is on its way and that a second lockdown needs to be implemented. Adler said the calculations are complex because policy decisions typically do not how their impact on the virus for 10-14 days. By the time a surge is detected, it could already be too late.

Adler further emphasized the importance of staying home. Last week, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin provided models of how continuing to reduce social interactions and protecting the most vulnerable residents could impact the length of the virus in the community as well as the number of deaths, hospitalizations and the necessity of further lockdowns.

The models showed that at 95% effective cocooning, another lockdown could be necessary between mid-June and mid-September. Hospitalizations would peak at just under 3,000 in early August and would not overwhelm the hospital system. Under these circumstances, the models predicted a similar peak in hospitalizations by mid-December before indicating a permanent downward trend toward a complete fizzling-out by June 2021. Deaths would still reach 2,900 but would not reach that number until roughly March 2021.

A separate model showing 80% effective cocooning paints a grimmer picture. In that situation, to refrain from overwhelming the health care system, another lockdown would be necessary between June and November, followed by another lockdown from mid-November to mid-January 2021, another lockdown from early March to late April 2021 and a final lockdown in June 2021. This model shows three waves of hospitalizations—in early August, January 2021 and late April 2021— before slowing down after September 2021. Deaths would continually rise through September 2021, peaking at 6,500.

Adler said that at this point, they have not figured out what the triggers will be or what an emergency lockdown plan would look like. He emphasized that no one, including the Texas governor, has the answers and said that officials will continue to rely on data.

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce was not immediately available for comment.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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