Austin is on the brink of intensifying into Stage 5 of its risk-based guidelines surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, because of the post-Thanksgiving increasing spike of new cases. This escalation would include a suggested restaurant-focused curfew, as Interim Medical Director and Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott shared during an Austin Public Health press conference this morning.
Other Stage 5 guidelines include recommendations that all open businesses limit their services to takeout and delivery services only, which would require restaurants to willingly close dining rooms for on-site services until the number of active COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decreases for a period of time. It also asks that people avoid all gatherings outside of their household groups.
This potential restaurant curfew would be necessary because “what we’re doing now is not working,” says Dr. Escott during the conference. “How else can we limit risk?” The city will have a “miserable Christmas and miserable New Year if we allow this kind of transmission to continue,” he says.
Dr. Escott is specifically concerned about “the risk associated with social gatherings in the evenings,” pointing again to “bars operating as restaurants but still functioning as bars,” courtesy of loopholes provided by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, a sentiment he has expressed often.
Dr. Escott said that the cut-off time could be 10 or 10:30 p.m. The late-evening time was selected so that it would deter people from going outside of their homes at night, but still allow household groups to go to restaurants. He doesn’t foresee a city-wide curfew impacting all businesses at this time.
In Travis County, there were 415 new cases of the virus on December 14, and then 613 more cases the next day. The seven-day moving average of hospital admissions is currently 46.4, and the number of hospitalizations has continued to increase since mid-September. The area’s positivity rate is currently 9 percent. This is also as health care workers across the country, including Austin, begin to receive the first dose of the two-step vaccination process this week.
The city entered Stage 4 of the risk-based guidelines ahead of Thanksgiving, which asks restaurant dining rooms and bars to reduce indoor capacity limits to 25 to 50 percent from the allowable 75 percent by the state.
During the press conference, Director of Austin Public Health Stephanie Hayden reiterated that people should still stick to their household groups and only venture out for essential purposes. “Do not connect with others who do not live in your household,” she says. Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette recommends that groups send a single person to go out for essential grocery shopping, or just opt for deliveries instead.
It’s important to note that Austin’s stages are not official orders, though; rather, these are suggestions because the city cannot supersede any state orders, which allow restaurants to remain open for dine-in services at 75 percent indoor capacities and no outdoor limits, as long as social distancing measures are being followed. The governor allowed county judges to decide whether bars can reopen in their respective districts, but Travis County Judge Andy Brown has chosen to keep them closed.
Relatedly, this week, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission made it easier for bars to apply for restaurant permitting this week, by doing away with some of the restrictions (the businesses don’t have to get new kitchen equipment, can serve food not prepared on-site), extending into February 20, 2021.