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COVID-19

Austin Stays At Stage 4 Guidelines Ahead Of Statewide COVID-19 Changes

A demonstrator holds a sign that says "Save lives, wear a mask."
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Demonstrators call for essential workers to be vaccinated, at a rally in front of the state Capitol on Monday.

Now is not the right time to lower the COVID-19 risk level for the Austin area, the city’s interim medical director said Tuesday.

Dr. Mark Escott said Austin Public Health has considered dropping to stage 3 of its risk-based guidelines since the rolling average for daily hospitalizations is now in that range.

"We've been in stage 3 territory for the past week. ... I sent a text out to Mayor [Steve Adler] and Judge [Andy Brown] this weekend expecting that we were going to transition to stage 3 today," he told a joint session of Austin City Council members and Travis County commissioners.

But with the statewide mask mandate and business capacity restrictions ending Wednesday and small increases in hospitalizations over the past few days, Escott said APH is recommending the city stay at stage 4.

"I'm grateful [Gov. Greg Abbott] has reiterated the importance of masking and the importance of distancing over the past several days," Escott said. "But my concern is that what people will hear is, 'You don't have to wear a mask, and everything is opened 100%.' That's the wrong message."

In stage 4, officials recommend people avoid gatherings of more than 10 people who live outside their households. People at higher risk should be around no more than two people and travel only if absolutely needed. Businesses are urged to operate at 50% capacity and offer curbside and delivery options.

Escott said APH will continue to monitor the risk level to the community and could make a new decision as early as the end of this week. For now, he said, Austin will stay at "stage 4 to ensure that we continue the advocacy and the efforts that got us to this stage."

"Relaxing now followed by spring break, Easter, St. Patrick's Day and a number of vaccinated [people] which is not anywhere close to herd immunity certainly leaves us open for a third surge here in Texas," he said.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar issued a statement after the joint session saying that rules required by a City Council ordinance give Austin Public Health authority to establish mandates, like requiring masks. The most recent executive order from Abbott, however, explicitly disallows local governments from requiring masks.

Casar tweeted to KUT that he's "spoken with legal experts" and believes "the city's announcement today is both legal and the right thing to do."

"If state officials choose to sue, they’ll be going out of their way to harm the health of Texans," Casar said in the statement.

This story has been updated.

Got a tip? Email Jerry Quijano at jerry@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.

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