Abbott expands local authority to restrict large outdoor gatherings ahead of July 4 as COVID-19 cases keep rising
The number of new cases in Texas for Tuesday, 5,489, broke the previous record set over the weekend by more than 1,000 cases, leading Gov. Greg Abbott to renew calls for Texans to stay home and allow local officials to restrict large outdoor gatherings.
"These are just some of the steps Texas will take to contain the rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations," Abbott said in a statement. "As we face this challenge, there is no substitute for personal responsibility. I urge all Texans to do everything in their power to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus by wearing a face mask, washing their hands often, and staying six-feet apart from others."
The order allows mayors and county judges to ban or restrict public gatherings with more than 100 people. Previously, officials could only restrict gatherings of more than 500. Abbott also directed the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to issue stricter emergency rules for health and safety at child care centers, some of which have become hotspots for the viruses spread in the state.
Prior to Tuesday's order, Abbott refrained from giving local officials greater authority to restrict the movement and actions of residents, ignoring calls from the leaders of most large cities in the state.
"We want to make sure everyone reinforces the best safe practices of wearing a mask, hand sanitation, maintaining safe distance, but importantly, because the spread is so rampant right now, there's never a reason for you to have to leave your home unless you need to go out," Abbott said during an interview with KBTX in College Station via satellite. "The safest place for you is at your home."
Abbott hinted at the coming expansion of local authority ahead of the July 4 weekend. He also warned Monday that he might have to reissue restrictions to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus if case counts keep rising. But he did not say what that would entail, nor did he say what the restrictions would look like for the upcoming holiday.
"We did see an increase after Memorial Day," Abbott said. "We saw an increase in the early part of June. We need to make sure that we do have the flexibility to reduce crowds in ways that will reduce the spread of COVID-19."
In the meantime, Abbott mentioned an increasing crackdown on bars violating social distancing and other restrictions intended to fight the viruses spread.
"There are measures that are being taken to make sure that we are immediately responding to this, as well as additional announcements that may be coming later today and later tomorrow, as well as during the course of the week," he told KBTX.
Abbott's comments come as a new set of mask-requirement orders are coming down from the city of Austin and Travis County. The new orders mandate face coverings at businesses for all employees and visitors—the city's order goes a step further in additionally requiring businesses that do not interact with the public to follow the guidelines, too.
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To help make sense of the all information emerging about COVID-19 in Austin, we're answering a few big questions:
1. Why do I keep hearing about Austin's ICU capacity?<div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3127217" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/3127217/embed"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div><p>Because we may not have enough of it.</p><p>ICU beds are Austin's "critical limited resource" and Austin is at risk of reaching capacity—and overwhelming the city's health care system—sooner than previously thought, Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers told Austin City Council on Thursday. <br><br>Dr. Meyers, a modeler at the University of Texas at Austin, said she and her team of researchers recently experienced "a fundamental shift" in their understanding of hospital capacity. ICU beds are filling up faster than regular hospital beds, making ICU capacity the most important metric to watch.</p><p>"It is very possible that we may hit our lower limit for ICU capacity soon," Dr. Meyers said, giving an estimate of early August.</p><p>Area hospitals report they have the beds and staff needed to treat up to 331 COVID patients in their ICUs. If they are able to access additional personnel—such as through contractors and the U.S. military—that capacity could increase to 474.</p><p>If the ICUs fill up, it could threaten the ability of the hospitals to care for COVID patients as well as patients with other medical issues.</p><p>The current state of ICUs:</p><ul><li>There are 149 COVID patients in Austin area ICUs as of Wednesday evening, and they account for about a third of the occupied beds.</li><li>Austin's ICUs are at about 85% occupancy, up from 80% last week, according to a Tuesday report from the Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare hospital systems.</li></ul><p>The continued influx of COVID patients is straining area hospitals, which are also facing requests to accept patients from other Texas cities, according to Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott.</p><p>"It is not normal operations," he said.</p><p>To meet the rising demand, hospitals will have to reassign non-ICU doctors to care for their patients, which means "a different standard of care than we're used to," Dr. Escott said.</p><p>In the worst-case scenario, patients will spill over into the Austin Convention Center, which could open as a field hospital for low-acuity patients as soon as July 20.</p>
2. Is the COVID-19 fatality rate improving?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0NTg3My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTQ3NzIxN30.wTIFalip3a_dj2_xbbzNCKH_-ngM4tkqb_mGQ3s0ER8/img.png?width=980" id="db25c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="85e039ae61eeebdf2b91a3f582088700" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p>Yes, but with caveats.</p><p>Austin's COVID-19 <a href="https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/3121104/" target="_blank">fatality rate</a>—defined as reported deaths per confirmed cases—continues to drop, even as the local caseload and <a href="https://austonia.com/Coronavirus/austin-hospitals" target="_self"><u>related hospitalizations increase</u></a>. But Dr. Escott cautions that it likely does not show the full picture.</p><p>Travis County has confirmed 13,161 cases as of Wednesday evening and reported 159 deaths, for a fatality rate of around 1.2%. This is down from <a href="https://austonia.com/Coronavirus/coronavirus-deaths-austin" target="_self"><u>1.8% on June 22</u></a> and 3.6% at the end of April.</p><p>However, many of the confirmed cases have been reported in the last two to three weeks, which means those patients have likely not yet required hospitalization—or died.</p><p>"The deaths that are going to happen for the people in the hospital just haven't happened yet," Dr. Meyers told the council Thursday.</p><p>There are some signs that the fatality rate is declining—at least to some degree—for two main reasons:</p><ul><li>Improved treatments—such as the antiviral drug remdesivir, steroids and convalescent plasma therapy.</li><li>An increasing number of cases among young people, who have a higher probability of recovering.</li></ul><p>But COVID-19 remains disproportionately fatal for certain groups.</p><ul><li>People over 60 account for 11% of confirmed cases but 85% of deaths.</li><li>Black residents, who make up 9% of Travis County's population, account for 6% of confirmed cases but 10% of reported deaths.</li><li>Latino residents—34% of the population—account for 52% of confirmed cases and 41% of deaths.</li></ul>
3. Are we moving to Stage 5?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0NjAzNy9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTEwNTk5MX0.VDN5YmTKWAXjP37di8y2V9nHBJOuElRm7HWxqi593pU/img.png?width=980" id="ab95f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="654ed55191bb22d73a3257b8782a35e7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
4. What does this mean for Austin schools?<p>In her presentation to the council, Dr. Meyers delivered projections about what may happen when Austin ISD begins its school year on Aug. 18.<br></p><p>Even if the city issues a 35-day shutdown order between now and then, modeling shows some students will arrive at school with COVID-19.</p><p>In the case of less severe restrictions, the number of infected students expected to arrive at schools next month is higher.</p><p>During the same meeting, Dr. Escott said schools could see COVID clusters—like those reported at nursing homes and construction sites.</p><p>"There shouldn't be an expectation that there will be a school without a cluster," he said.</p><p>Education Austin, a union that represents AISD teachers and staff, is pushing for online-only instruction and encouraging its 3,000 members to avoid campuses if the district doesn't change its plans.</p><p>"All signs point to disaster," ED President Ken Zarifis said during <a href="https://austonia.com/education/austin-schools-online" target="_self"><u>a press conference</u></a> Wednesday.</p>
5. What is Austin City Council doing about this?<p>Austin City Council unanimously approved on Thursday two ordinances that allow for stronger enforcement of existing COVID-19 restrictions:</p><ul><li>One allows civil penalties—including daily fines of up to $2,000—for people who violate masking orders and other rules set by APH to curb the spread of COVID-19.</li><li>The other allows the city to declare properties a public health nuisance if they do not do enough to slow the spread of COVID-19, including enforcing the state's mask mandate and limiting the number of individuals who gather or stand together to a total of 10 or fewer.</li></ul><p>Properties maintained by government entities, used as residences, or that provide medical services or childcare are excluded.</p><p>Mayor Steve Adler said he and Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe will be appealing to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for state assistance to address the staffing shortages faced by area hospitals.</p>
6. Is there any good news?<p>Possibly.</p><p>There is some evidence that transmission of COVID-19 is slowing down in Austin, Dr. Meyers told the council. She attributed the change to policies implemented in late June, including the statewide mask mandate, and an increased culture of caution.</p><p>"It looks like we may have slowed things a little bit," she added.</p><p>But Dr. Meyers said that this is no reason to abandon precautions.</p><p>There is about a 10-day lag in the data she and her team use in their modeling, which means that the transmission rate could have changed.</p><p>"We don't know where we are today exactly," Dr. Meyers said.</p><p>The modeling also indicates that any slowdown that may be occurring is not at a high enough rate to avoid overwhelming hospitals, which could see ICUs reach capacity by early August.</p><p>"It is very, very uncertain," she said of any slowdown. "If anything, we should be reinforcing this culture of caution."</p>
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Gov. Greg Abbott said on Friday that "the worst is yet to come" in the Texas COVID-19 surge. "If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19," Abbott said during a TV interview, "the next step would have to be a lockdown."
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Update 7/10 6:58:
The Austin Watershed Protection Department said in a statement that there is now some preliminary concern about algae found at Red Bud Isle yesterday, though so far results are not definitive.
Fifteen people set to work during the July 14 election, including two election judges, have quit due to fears about the coronavirus pandemic, the Travis County Clerk's office confirmed.
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Fighting over child custody and visitation is painful under even the best of circumstances, but attorneys and parents say the coronavirus pandemic has brought more stress, more fear, and more "live ammunition" to the battlefield.
A high level of fear<p>Austin family attorney Robert Luther said situations like M's have become a regular occurrence.<br></p><p>"There's a lot of acrimony out there, caused by the philosophical and political positions relative to the pandemic," said Luther. "Everybody's fear level is super high, or their defensiveness is super high. It's one or the other."</p><p>And if it was bad in the beginning, when canceled schools in March threw custody agreements into chaos, then it's even worse now with the latest surge in numbers, Luther said.</p><p>Arrangements between parents who disagree on how to handle the pandemic—or who just don't trust each other—were uncomfortable, but the parents had resigned themselves to it for a few months, he said.</p><p>Now trust is eroding, he said.</p><p>"This new level of long-term fear has affected a whole different round of people, I think, who thought they were being optimistic," he said. "And now being optimistic is really hard to do."</p>
Help from the courts<p>In April, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that— without hearings—custody agreements must be honored, regardless of pandemic orders or school calendars.<br></p><p>It helped M, whose relationship with his son had been relegated to texting and Zoom. In June, a judge threatened to hold his ex-wife in contempt if she tried it again, and said M could make up the lost time, according to court records.</p><p>The judge also directed him to have a COVID-19 test before another overnight visit with his son.</p>
An uneasy arrangement<p>Austin mom Jodi has been uncomfortable for months about sending her two young kids to spend time with her estranged husband, who she believes is too cavalier about the virus.<br></p><p>As the numbers have spiked, so have her fears. But there is no written visitation agreement, and the uneasy cooperation that allows them fairly equal time with the kids is precarious. A custody agreement is likely in the future, when a divorce gets filed, and it's vital to her that they stay on good terms.</p><p>"I don't agree with how he's handling it, but I don't want to fight," said Jodi, who also asked that her full name not be used to protect her children.</p>
New lines of communication<p>Some divorced parents have found a way through years of anger and hurt, finding that the pandemic has opened up new lines of communication that benefit the kids.<br></p><p>Anthony and My-Cherie Haley have worked hard to make things easy during this uncertain time, they said. A birthday party and a Pre-K graduation spent together with the kids during lockdown would have been unheard of in the five years since the divorce.</p><p>"It's not been bad for us, interestingly," Anthony Haley said. "All that's just been put aside, and we're just working together on all of it. It's the only way to make it through this."</p><p>Said My-Cherie Haley with a laugh: "Was it always hunky-dory? No. But we've been really flexible with each other because of this pandemic."</p>
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The newest addition to the Austin Zoo is in need of a name, and for a $2 donation, you can pitch your own idea.