A newly formed Central Texas task force is working to create recommendations to reopen the local economy while adhering to public health guidelines during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Organized by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Travis County and the city of Austin, Chamber President Laura Huffman said she hopes the new Opening Central Texas for Business Task Force will create an outline that can help local officials determine how the economy can safely operate after current stay-at-home orders expire May 8.
"We're going to get through this [pandemic] by adapting to COVID-19 until we have sufficient test capacity, we have effective treatment and we have a vaccine,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said at a news conference April 23. “We don't yet have those three things, so adaptation is our way forward. May 8 is a beginning point, but until we're all the way out of this, the idea of collaboration [with the task force] is going to be central."
Eckhardt said that through ongoing social distancing measures, the county has reduced its infection rate by 90%. Local officials believe any rate above 80% will not overwhelm hospital capacity, although there are still limitations to containing the virus, she said.
"Now that we've gotten to a 90% reduction of infection rate, I know that we can't stay home forever," she said. "We do need to find ways to adapt to COVID-19 and begin commerce in a mindful and a measured way."
Despite coming efforts to reopen the economy and data showing a reduced infection rate, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he does not want residents to think the ongoing coronavirus threat is over. Lifting current social distancing restrictions is “not a viable option” and would lead to a more rapid spread of the virus and additional deaths, he said.
"We're going to be dealing with this virus for an extended period of time," Adler said. "It hasn't gone away; it's as infections as ever; but we also recognize that we have to move forward."
Statewide efforts to reopen the Texas economy have been ongoing over the past few weeks. Gov. Greg Abbott on April 17 announced a first set of executive orders. Included in the orders was a timeline that allows all retailers in the state to reopen with to-go services April 24, reopened state parks and historical sites April 20 and lifted some restrictions on nonessential medical procedures beginning April 22.
Abbott is expected to announce a new round of orders to further reopen the economy April 27.
"At this point we really [won't] know the details of the plan until we see it,” Adler said. “The governor has repeatedly said his first priority is public health. The governor has repeatedly said he is going to be guided by the science and the data and the doctors. I'm encouraged by both of those things."
Newly formed Opening Central Texas for Business Task Force to create recommendations on reopening local economy
Many Travis County businesses have been closed since local officials put a stay-at-home order in place in mid-March. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)