Barring an unforeseen breakthrough in COVID-19 testing or treatment, Austin public health officials say, it's unlikely large-scale events like ACL Fest or UT Longhorn football games will happen for the rest of the year.
At a briefing Wednesday morning, Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin Public Health, said the risks of exposure and the lack of social distancing would facilitate the spread of the virus.
"The large events were the first thing that we turned off and are going to be the last thing we turn back on, because of that risk of exposing lots of people to one another – particularly individuals outside of a household," he said.
Austin-Travis County's first step to address the coronavirus pandemic was to cancel South By Southwest back in March. Officials then moved to ban events with 2,500 attendees, then limited events to 250 people. Capacity was later lowered to 50 before the official stay-at-home order on March 24 banned gatherings completely.
Escott said if there was a decrease in hospitalizations, public health officials would reconsider by October, when ACL Fest normally kicks off and football season is in full swing. He said Travis County hadn't yet flattened the curve to an extent that would allow that this year.
"Looking through the end of December, we don't have any indications at this stage that we would be able to mitigate risk enough to have large events – particularly ones over 2,500," Escott said. "Having said that, a lot is changing very quickly."
Still, Escott didn't rule out the possibility of events altogether. He said if an effective vaccine or treatment for the new coronavirus comes online, the ban could be reconsidered. If that were the case, Escott said saliva-based rapid tests ideally would be done at the gates. While some saliva-based test kits have shown promise – with some even getting fast-tracked by the FDA – the turnaround (for now) isn't quite there yet.
Officials have said testing is key to reopening responsibly. Austin and Travis County have made strides in expanding testing overall, but they're still well short of Austin Public Health's self-imposed benchmark to test 2,000 people a day.
APH is advising people to get tested if they have symptoms of COVID-19 through its online enrollment form.
As for smaller-scale events, the future is unclear. A consortium of independent music venues from across Texas this week announced it's lobbying the state to reopen for concerts.
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