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Austin Health Officials Urge People To Keep Social Distancing As Risk Level Is Lowered To Stage 3

A member of the media has his temperature checked before entering the Alternate Care Site at the Austin Convention Center on July 24.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A member of the media has his temperature checked before entering the Alternate Care Site at the Austin Convention Center on July 24.

Austin Public Health officials want people to continue social distancing, wearing masks and practicing good hygiene even though the health authority has loosened guidelines due to a recent plateau in COVID-19 cases.  

Tuesday’s transition from stage 4 to stage 3 removes guidelines to avoid nonessential travel, dining and shopping. Higher-risk individuals, including seniors, should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people instead of the previously recommended two. Everyone should still avoid social gatherings of any size, the guidelines state.

Dr. Mark Escott, the interim health authority and medical director for APH, said although Austin is doing better than many other major U.S. cities in terms of its positivity rate, it’s important to stay the course to help both the economy and schools. 

“We’ve got to ensure that by Sept. 8, we can be even in a better place so that we can not only open schools but keep them open and add additional students in safely,” he said during a news conference on Wednesday.

Escott said he would like to see a positivity rate of 5% or less in each race and ethnic group in order to open classrooms. Currently, the positivity rate is around 7.6%. 

“We don’t want to be in the situation where schools predominantly in communities of color can’t open when other schools can open,” Escott said.  

APH Director Stephanie Hayden said the department is working to mitigate the risks presented by Hurricane Laura evacuees coming to Austin. Evacuees who have tested positive or have symptoms will be housed in an isolation facility. Escott said he’s more concerned with backyard barbecues and sorority and fraternity parties than the risk associated with evacuees.

Escott said while universities and colleges have done a great job of engineering classroom spacing and decreasing the number of students on campus, the challenge is going to be in changing student behavior when it comes to social gatherings. He said that would be a challenge in K-12 schools as well. 

Hayden said APH plans to have meetings with representatives from groups like fraternities and sororities to inform them of current orders in place and what practices have been helping the local community. She said people may have come to their college or university from a place that had different restrictions. 

Hayden said she’s hoping that college students will step up to the plate to be role models. 

This story has been updated.

Got a tip? Email Sangita Menon at Follow her on Twitter @sangitamenon.

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Sangita Menon is a general assignment reporter for KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @sangitamenon.
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