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Five days after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced a strike force to reopen the Texas economy, local elected officials and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce announced they would convene a business task force to reopen the regional economy, with recommendations expected by May 8, when area stay-at-home orders are set to expire.
"I know that we can't stay home forever," Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said during a press conference earlier today. "Adaption is our way forward."
The task force includes representatives from Samsung, Kerbey Lane Cafe, Capital Metro and the Austin Justice Coalition, according to a preliminary list.
Austin Chamber President and CEO Laura Huffman said members will balance public health with economic recovery at the same press conference, adding: "I think you can count on the task force to hold these two things as mutual and interlinked priorities."
Data indicates Austin is containing the spread of coronavirus through social distancing, stay-home orders and mask-wearing mandates. Hospitals in the five-county region—including Travis, Williamson, Bastrop, Caldwell and Hays—have not so far been overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, and modeling out of the University of Texas-Austin suggests the peak may be behind us.
Early action by local elected officials has slowed the infection rate by 90%, Eckhardt said, but she added that reopening businesses will increase risk of infection.
"The threshold at which we can absorb our infection rate is at 80% or above," she said.
Both she and Austin Mayor Steve Adler stressed the importance of tracking what impact reopening business has on the number of COVID-19 cases and urged continued vigilance.
"We're going to be dealing with this virus for an extended period of time," Adler said. "It hasn't gone away. It's as infectious as ever."
Adler and Eckhardt stressed that increased testing capacity will be critical as people return to work so local officials can adapt guidelines and prevent a surge.
While Travis County is testing more residents per capita than any other major metro in the state—around 6 people are tested per every 1,000 residents, based on data from the Department of State Health Services—it still isn't enough.
"We actually need eight times that testing capacity according to experts to actually track and contain the virus," Eckhardt said.
Adler said the near-term goal is to test 2,000 to 3,000 Travis County residents per week. As of April 16, 8,386 tests had been administered in Travis County over the course of the pandemic, per DSHS.
Abbott is expected to announce recommendations from the state strike force next week. Its roster includes Austinites Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Technologies; Robert Smith, a venture capitalist; Kendra Scott, CEO of her eponymous jewelry company; and state Sen. Kirk Watson.
Eckhardt expressed concern that the governor may reopen the state economy "too broadly" and cause infection rates to rise. She added that the regional task force includes representatives from small businesses and local government entities, which she said are not represented in its state counterpart.
It remains unclear if the state's recommendations about how to reopen the economy will interfere with local ones. A similar issue emerged when the city and state had different interpretations of which businesses were deemed essential in their respective stay-home orders. Ultimately, the state's took precedence.
Whatever happens, continued adjustments will be necessary.
"We will be different," Eckhardt said. "There is no return to business as usual."
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.