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Austin Is In 'Very, Very Dangerous Spot,' Health Official Says. July 4 Parties Could Force Shutdown.

CommUnityCare conducts drive-thru COVID-19 testing in Hancock Center.
Gabriel C. Pérez
CommUnityCare conducts drive-thru COVID-19 testing in Hancock Center.

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Ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, health officials say Austin is at the precipice of a spike in COVID-19 cases that could lead to another full shutdown of businesses and social activity.

Dr. Mark Escott, Austin Public Health's interim medical authority, urged Austinites on Monday to stay home to forestall the possibility of closures. Travis County saw 636 new coronavirus cases Sunday.

Escott's warning came during a special City Council meeting, following an update on COVID-19 modeling from UT Austin epidemiologist Lauren Ancel Meyers. Meyers' modeling suggests as many as 2,100 Austinites could die as a result of the coronavirus. One model suggested city officials could need to institute a 35-day closure to prevent hospitals from becoming inundated with patients.

Because the city has no ability to enforce social-distancing rules, Escott said, it's largely up to Austinites to take safety measures over the holiday weekend.

"I know we want to celebrate. I know we want to get together with our families," he said. "I know we want to have fireworks shows and barbecue and do the things that we normally do. But now's not the time for that, because this is important."

Escott said he expects another spike if people go out en masse and do all those things.

"We are in a very, very dangerous spot," he said.

The discussion came shortly after Travis County officially closed its parks and pleaded with Gov. Greg Abbott to give cities and counties more latitude to restrict gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe wrote Abbott on Monday, asking him to grant local officials the ability to enforce requirements for face coverings in public, ban gatherings of more than 10 people, further restrict openings to 25% capacity and allow cities and counties to "roll all the way back to Stay Home orders based on worsening circumstances."

The county also announced it is closing parks at 8 p.m. on July 2. Parks will reopen July 7 at 8 a.m. 

Biscoe also formally asked cities, county judges and school superintendents within the Austin Metropolitan Service Area to "cancel publicly sponsored events and close spaces," arguing that leaving them open could fuel a surge in hospitalizations.

Biscoe cited APH's difficulty with contact tracing – which has been hobbled by the influx of test results, often received by fax – and Austin-area hospitals that are nearing 70% capacity.

"We simply cannot afford missteps at this stage which could exacerbate the risk of overwhelming our healthcare system," he wrote.

Austin announced Monday evening that it's closing "all parks and recreational facilities" from Friday through Sunday. Austin's Parks and Recreation Department said that includes parks, pools, museums, tennis courts, boat ramps and golf courses. Pre-paid park reservations will be refunded, the city said.

The city is also shutting down Barton Springs and Deep Eddy pools, both of which are not chlorinated, until further notice. Chlorinated pools will be allowed to reopen after the weekend closures.

Escott said earlier he was concerned closing parks and public facilities would lead people to congregate elsewhere and that the onus shouldn't be placed solely on the City of Austin.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said she understood that reasoning, but added the city should have adopted a stronger stance in light of the projections.

"The modeling specifically said – unless we drastically change behavior, we're heading toward some really scary numbers," she said.

Shortly after the parks announcement, Abbott spoke with KXAN-TV about the possibility of closures in light of the surge in COVID-19 cases. While he didn't say any further restrictions on businesses were imminent, he did say "additional actions will be necessary" if the state's hospitalization rate ticked upward.

This story has been updated. 

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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