On Saturday, March 13, Austin and Travis County reduced restrictions to Stage 3 of the region’s COVID-19 risk-based guidelines, exactly a year after the city confirmed its first two cases of the virus. The city and county attributed the rollback to the decreasing weekly average number of novel coronavirus-related hospitalizations in the area, as well as the increasing number of vaccinations.
Stage 3 recommendations include asking restaurants to limit their indoor capacities anywhere from 50 to 75 percent. Social gatherings should still be avoided, and social groups should be limited to 10 people or fewer. These codes, as usual, are suggestions, not requirements, issued by the local government. However, due to the nature of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to reopen businesses to 100 percent capacity as of Wednesday, March 10.
In contrast, customers are still required to wear facial coverings (except when seated at a table for eating and drinking purposes), and restaurants and bars must cap groups at 10 people with six feet of distance between tables or four feet if a barrier is used, based on rules issued by the Austin/Travis County Health Department. Restaurants and bars are also required to continue cleaning high-touch areas regularly, and post signs about these requirements. This is despite Abbott’s orders lifting all coronavirus restrictions and Texas Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton’s lawsuit against Austin and Travis County over these requirements. The hearing has been delayed to Friday, March 26, which means the local orders still stand.
Austin and Travis County had been in Stage 4 since February.
“We didn’t get here by accident,” Austin public health director Stephanie Hayden-Howard says in a release, referring to the declining hospitalization and case numbers. “We know that our personal behavior to protect our loved ones and community played a large role. We hope with spring break and upcoming holidays near, we remember what got us to this stage and what it takes to continue to keep us safe.”
Interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott still urges people to be cautious. The decision to roll back the stage level “represents a deliberate and measured step to relax guidance based upon the date and science,” he says in a release, but people still need to social distance, sanitize hands, and wear masks. “If we continue with these simple measures, we will continue to experience a decline in cases and will avoid a deadly third surge.”