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Austin, Travis County Encourage Wearing Masks And Minimizing Social Contact As Businesses Reopen

Shoppers enter Barton Creek Square on Friday as some retail stores began opening during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Shoppers enter Barton Creek Square on Friday as some retail stores began opening during the coronavirus pandemic.

Austin and Travis County leaders re-emphasized Monday that the local “Stay Home, Work Safe” orders are still in effect. 

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott let his statewide stay-at-home order expire and issued a new order that allows restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters and malls to reopen Friday with certain capacity limits and health protocols. 

Austin and Travis County say their local actions are consistent with Abbott’s new order, which requires people to “minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.” Previously, the exception to that rule was to access essential services, but now the exception includes accessing the newly reopened businesses, according to a press release from the city and county.

Watch Austin and Travis County's virtual press conference below:

The local orders expire May 8, but officials plan to extend them later this week with some modifications that comply with Abbott’s order, according to the release.

Austin and Travis County will still require people to use face coverings in public, they said, but under the state rules they cannot enforce the requirement through civil or criminal penalties.

“The real penalty for not wearing a face covering in Austin is that more people will get sick and some of them will die,” Mayor Steve Adler said in the press release. “That should be penalty enough. Our community acts through the choices that individuals make. Together, we will decide how COVID-19 will impact us. Let’s make the right choices.”

The local orders still ban gatherings of people who do not live together and require social distancing in public. Travel is allowed only for essential services or to go to reopened businesses. People can still go outside for exercise.

The city and county say it’s unclear whether the reopening of certain businesses will lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases that would impact hospital capacity, but public health officials “will monitor for increased infections and hospitalizations over the next three to four weeks — the period of time needed to measure any impact and determine if new action is necessary.”

“With case numbers and deaths continuing to rise, there is no doubt Travis County continues to be threatened by COVID-19. This is why we must extend Stay Home, Work Safe,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said in the press release. “Face coverings and social distancing are helping. Now is not the time to abandon these effective measures.”

Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin-Travis County, said in the release that, locally, officials were looking into similar reopening plans, but they were anticipating a “later implementation date given the needs of our community.”

“We need the community to continue to stay home, practice physical distancing, and use fabric face coverings when in public,” he said.

During a virtual press conference released Monday evening, Escott stressed the importance of getting tested quickly after developing symptoms. He encouraged people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath, to use Austin Public Health’s Public Enrollment Testing form to see if they’re eligible for a test and to get an appointment.

“We want the same day people develop symptoms for them to sign up on the website to schedule for testing and to get tested as quickly as possible,” he said. “The best we can hope for is to get them tested quickly, isolate them as soon as they become symptomatic and really help prevent and control this infection spread.”

Adler said in the press conference that he’s raising “a big yellow warning flag.”

“I am concerned that what I saw this weekend is going to lead us to the place where we’re going to overshoot the mark we’re trying to get to,” he said. 

He emphasized the need for people to wear face coverings in public, not gather in big groups and to keep their distance from others. Although local hospital capacity has not been reached yet, he said, projections show that we must still continue reducing transmission to keep them from overflowing. If there’s only a 40% reduction in transmission, hospitalizations would greatly exceed capacity and thousands would die, according to a projection he shared. 

If we can’t keep the number of hospitalizations down, then “we’re going to have to do another lockdown,” he said. 

Eckhardt said she is advocating for local governments to be able to set a locally determined ceiling of regulation, so that when troubling signs emerge, they can respond accordingly to keep the community safe.

She said she recognizes that it’s confusing that Abbott is encouraging people to minimize their personal contact with others “and yet he did open up some very high contact businesses.” 

“It is confusing and we recognize that, but we also recognize our tremendous community for making good choices, and our business community for putting their customers as well as their employees as their priority,” she said. “So many of our businesses chose not to open even though the governor made it possible for them to open.”

This post has been updated.

Got a tip? Email Marisa Charpentier at mcharpentier@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.

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