Travis County health officials say bars, Thanksgiving gatherings have increased COVID-19 spread but hold off on Stage 5

Coronavirus graphic
Travis County continues to edge closer to Stage 5 coronavirus risk. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Travis County continues to edge closer to Stage 5 coronavirus risk. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Travis County’s top public health official warned Dec. 15 that COVID-19 transmission trends are rising at an alarming pace, threatening to restrict hospital capacity in the coming weeks.

In a presentation to the Travis County Commissioners Court, Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, said active coronavirus cases are up by 45% since Dec. 1, and hospitalizations and ICU admissions are up by 28% and 13%, respectively.

“This is bad. We’re moving in the wrong direction. I really don’t know how to make it any more clear that what we’re doing now as a community is not working,” Escott said.

With a seven-day moving average of 47 daily hospital admissions related to COVID-19 in the Austin area, Travis County is on the verge of reaching Stage 5 risk, which carries the highest level of recommended restrictions. At a Dec. 11 Commissioners Court meeting, Escott confirmed Stage 5 guidelines might include a curfew as well as heightened recommended restrictions for businesses and restaurants.

Austin Public Health leaders could recommend the shift to Stage 5 once the average number of daily admissions reaches 50, but Escott said they will likely hold off on changing the status until that figure hits 60.

“It is going to take all of us—this entire community—to scale back the risk,” he said.

In urging the community to take precautions, Escott specifically called out businesses using “loopholes” to circumvent opening restrictions. Specifically, he said more than 200 bars in Travis County have reopened under restaurant licenses while not fully observing restaurant restrictions, including spaced-out seating and masking.

Escott said the spike is also partly a result of Thanksgiving gatherings, and a repeat over Christmas or New Year's Day could risk moving Travis County into a scenario similar to what the El Paso area has experienced, where hospital capacity has been overwhelmed. According to the most recent numbers, as of Dec. 15, 1,220 El Pasoans have died from COVID-19 in the county of just over 836,000 residents.

"I want to be very clear that a surge like what’s seen in El Paso would mean another 1,500 Travis County residents dead in the next 60 days," Escott said.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown up these warnings later in the day with a letter to faith leaders in the city and county urging them to temporarily host services virtually, especially as holiday services begin.

“As faith organizations and families make plans to celebrate this special time of year, we are encouraging those that have digital capabilities to once again consider virtual worship services or to keep hosting virtual services," Brown said in the letter. "Where virtual services are not an option, we are asking faith leaders to make the necessary changes to their holiday services to allow for the enforcing of masking and social distancing guidelines.”

Escott’s concerned outlook did come alongside a shade of hope, as local medical facilities, including UT Health Austin and Dell Medical School, began administration of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to health care workers. Austin ISD officials have said teachers will be among the next phase of community members, alongside other essential workers, to be offered the vaccine as further shipments arrive.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:46 p.m. Dec. 15 to reflect new recommendations from the mayor of Austin and Travis County judge regarding faith services.
By Olivia Aldridge
Olivia is the reporter for Community Impact's Central Austin edition. A graduate of Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, Olivia was a reporter and producer at South Carolina Public Radio before joining Community Impact in Austin.


Early voting for Travis County's May 1 local elections opened April 19. In this file photo, voters line up ahead of the 2020 primary elections at Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex in East Austin. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
More than 8,000 Travis County voters cast ballots on first day of early voting

Early voting for the county's May 1 election began April 19 and will run through April 27.

The Delco Activity Center in Northeast Austin is one of the locations where residents can receive a COVID-19 vaccine. (Jack Flalger/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin vaccine updates: Demand slows as state begins marketing push

Appointments are beginning to go unfilled, and local health officials say demand has caught up to supply. All adults in the U.S. are now eligible to be vaccinated.

Blue Corn Harvest Leander is located at 11840 Hero Way W., Bldg. A, Leander. (Taylor Girtman/Community Impact Newspaper)
Blue Corn Harvest opens in Leander; park, pizzeria launches social club and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Central Texas area.

Photo of two performers on an outdoor SXSW stage
South by Southwest sells ownership stake in company to Rolling Stone owner Penske Media Corp.

SXSW leadership called the sale a "lifeline" for the conference and festivals.

Photo of people receiving vaccines in a gym
Austin Public Health lengthens windows for vaccine appointment signups

Residents age 18 and up can now sign up for appointments with APH any time from Saturday to Tuesday morning.

Austin Anthem watch party
Crowds of fans converge on North Austin to watch inaugural Austin FC game

Breweries around Q2 Stadium in North Austin brought in large outdoor screens and new employees to host fans of Austin FC for the team's historic first match.

Austin Police Department
UPDATE: Loop 360 closed in both directions in Northwest Austin due to a shooting incident

Residents who live in the Arboretum area in Northwest Austin are advised to shelter in place.

Early voting for the May 1 election opens April 19 at a 7 a.m. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Early voting in Austin opens April 19: See what’s on the ballot, where to vote

City residents will be making decisions on eight propositions ranging from whether to adopt a strong mayor government system to whether to reinstate public camping bans.

Austin transportation officials said April 15 the range of corridor construction program projects initiated through the city's 2016 Mobility Bond remain on track for completion by late 2024. (Iain Oldman/Community Impact Newspaper)
Several Austin corridor mobility projects moving forward in 2021, program on track for 2024 completion

Transportation officials said some corridor program improvements previously planned along Guadalupe Street and East Riverside Drive are being reduced ahead of Project Connect expansions.

Jack Allen's Kitchen will be at 1345 E. Whitestone Blvd., Cedar Park. (Rendering courtesy Jack Allen's Kitchen)
7 restaurants coming to Cedar Park, Leander; new murals to go up in Georgetown and more top area news

Read the top business and community news from the Central Texas area from the past week.

The program, which began this week in San Marcos, gives Amazon and Whole Foods employees and contractors direct access to COVID-19 vaccinations. (Courtesy Amazon)
Amazon begins rollout of statewide vaccination clinics for employees

The program, which began this week in San Marcos, gives Amazon and Whole Foods employees and contractors direct access to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Photo of a home for sale
Central Austin housing market remains steep as area median home price reaches all-time high

Home prices in the Austin-Round Rock area have climbed more than 28% in the past year.