While daily case totals are not the only important health metric in monitoring the spread of the coronavirus, local officials said these numbers combined with other indicators, such as the rising seven-day rolling average of hospitalizations, indicate the virus is becoming increasingly more dangerous to the community.
With that increasing risk in mind, Austin and Travis County extended their stay-home orders June 15, adding language saying businesses are “strongly encouraged” to operate at 25% or lower of indoor capacity and maximize social distancing as much as possible.
Officials said in a press conference June 15 that residents need to redouble their efforts to stay safe by wearing a face covering when out in public and keeping 6 feet of distance from others to ensure the virus does not spread exponentially.
“Our ability to live lives and live as normally as we can comes down to two simple things: Just how inconvenient is it, really, to put on a face covering? How hard is it really to maintain 6 feet of distance? I hope everyone will put forth the effort,” Mayor Steve Adler said.
Dr. Mark Escott, the Austin-Travis County interim health authority, said hospitals in the Central Texas region are at about 70% of capacity, and anyone who needs care should continue to go to the hospital if needed and keep scheduled appointments.
“Hospitals are in good shape right now. We’re not talking to you because there is an impending threat in the next week, or two weeks, that hospitals are going to be overrun,” Escott said.
However, the spread of the virus in other communities has shown that these conditions can change quickly, officials said, and Austin residents should take action now to ensure hospital beds remain available in the future.
“When this virus comes, it’s going to come fast. It’s going to come faster than any of us can imagine,” Adler said.
On June 14, when the county’s rolling average of new hospitalizations exceeded 20, the county entered into coronavirus risk Stage 4, which, among other guidelines, calls for higher-risk individuals to avoid gathering in groups larger than two and avoid dining or shopping except as essential.
The guidelines are recommendations, not requirements. Adler, Escott and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said they recognize local government has no enforcement capability because Gov. Greg Abbott’s state orders override any municipal laws.
The new orders call for businesses to “do everything they can” to require social distancing and face coverings—beyond the requirements of the governor’s orders—while the city remains in Stage 4.
“The governor believes that personal choice will carry us through better than regulation would,” Eckhardt said. “I disagree.”
In late April, Abbott said his orders supersede any passed by a city or county after Harris County passed ordinances requiring face coverings.
“We strongly recommend that everyone wear a mask,” Abbott said at the time. “However, it’s not a mandate, and we made clear that no jurisdiction can impose any type of penalty or fine.”
Austin is not the only city to experience a spike in coronavirus cases. Texas reported a new daily high of 2,504 cases June 10—and Escott said other urban areas such as Bexar, Tarrant and Dallas counties have seen similar trends.
Eckhardt said she expects Austin to exceed its hospital capacity by the summer, and Escott said while surge plans can work within one community, they tend to fail if multiple areas surge at the same time because resources and staff are stretched too thin.
To avoid this situation in the future, Adler said Austin residents need to be “meeting in the middle.” Businesses do not need to fully shut down, but going out in public without social distancing and face coverings is also not sustainable—and the lack of those safety measures has contributed to the recent spike in cases.
“People aren’t doing it because they’re not convinced it’s necessary. But it is,” Adler said.