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Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and other city leaders emphasized the importance of wearing masks in response to Gov. Greg Abbott's most recent order, which will lift business capacity restrictions and the statewide masking mandate next week.
Abbott said during a statewide press conference on Tuesday that he would "open Texas 100%" effective March 10 as case rates continue to drop and record vaccine shipments roll in. State mandates, which previously limited businesses' capacity and required customers to wear masks, will be reversed, and staying safe during the remainder of the pandemic will be a "personal responsibility," according to Abbott.
Adler, Brown, St. David's Hospital Dr. Jose "Mario" Ayala, Austin Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Laura Huffman, Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 286 President Chap Thornton and Austin local entrepreneur Joi Chevalier spoke out against Abbott's order during a Wednesday morning press conference.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, Abbott said he would be guided by science, and on Tuesday he broke that promise," Adler said. "When the governor breaks his promise to us, we must make a promise to each other."
Adler is concerned for frontline workers, who are still not eligible for vaccinations as a group, and said that vaccines alone are not the answer to protecting essential workers and other at-risk members of the community. Although the city can no longer penalize those who don't wear masks, Adler said he hopes that the possibility of more COVID deaths is enough to keep people wearing masks.
Only around 7% of Travis County residents who are 16 or older are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Until vaccinations reach 80% of the population, Brown said that the mask mandate should not be lifted and that herd immunity cannot be reached.
"Yesterday's announcement from the governor—it comes at a time when the community is still recovering and still in the middle of crises," he said. "This is not time to be lifting the mask ordinance. We are not declaring victory on the pandemic. We are not over the pandemic."
Brown said that a potential "third surge" due to people not wearing masks would be devastating to the community and could reverse much of the progress that has been made in recent months.
Austin Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Laura Huffman said that choosing to wear masks in public is vital to keeping businesses alive and supporting both business and customer safety.
"If you look at what's happened over the past year, we've seen a lot of our favorite businesses close in Austin," she said. "Be respectful of businesses who are doing everything they can to stay open."
According to St. David's Hospital's Dr. Jose "Mario" Ayala, COVID is a "lonely" disease that can not be taken lightly. Ayala said the lifting of the mask mandate goes against science and that the city needs to continue to promote vaccinations, especially to the local Hispanic population, whose members are overrepresented among COVID hospitalizations and deaths and underrepresented among vaccine recipients.
"We need to follow science and data, not politics," Ayala said. "With COVID, you're in the hospital (and) you have nobody, it is one of the loneliest diseases I've ever seen. It's a small price to pay."
Adler and Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said that the lifting of the mask mandate was done to deflect the state of Texas' failure to provide energy to the state during the winter storm. In the storm, millions lost power and water during a week of subfreezing temperatures. Through all of the city's efforts to recover both during and after the storm, Zarifis said that Education Austin workers continued to wear masks.
"In spite of state leadership, we continue to follow science," Zarifis said. "The reason we are still at some measure of success is not because COVID has gotten safer. You don't stop running halfway through the race, you will lose."
In Austin, COVID hospitalization rates are down 57% since Feb. 1, but fewer than 7% of residents are fully vaccinated.
"We have to decide whether or not masking happens in a widespread manner in our community i just hope and trust that regardless of what the governor orders or doesn't order... we will continue to mask up," Adler said.
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As Q2 packs fans like sardines, could city, CDC recommendations disrupt the 'biggest party in Austin'?
In a scene that seemed to mark the pandemic's triumphant end, over 20,000 mostly maskless fans packed into Q2 Stadium for Austin FC's debut at Austin's first professional sports stadium in June. That mask-free utopia couldn't have been possible even a month before, and it may not be possible once more as Austin and the CDC returns to mask recommendations again for the first time since May.
Austin returned to Stage 4 restrictions on July 23 as case rates tripled since the beginning of the month and hospital beds once again filled with COVID patients. The spike comes after the highly contagious Delta variant was detected in Travis County. In its Stage 4 announcement, APH said its recommendations will not affect large events, such as Austin FC games, from operating.
More recently, the CDC updated its recommendation for vaccinated people on Wednesday, saying that all people in high-risk areas—including Austin with more than 50 COVID cases per 100,000 people—wear masks.
With businesses reinstating mask policies and new fear in the air, Q2's carefree party atmosphere may be affected. The club released the following statement to Austonia: "Austin FC encourages all guests to observe Austin Public Health's recommendations and take appropriate action based on individual circumstances."
Fan clubs react
Some Austin FC fans are concerned about taking their young kids ineligible for the vaccine to home matches. (Austin FC/Twitter)
Austin Anthem member Seth Rau said he's heard a few people express more concern about home matches. Still, the demand for attending matches at Q2, which regularly reaches full capacity despite a lackluster first-season performance, is not going away anytime soon.
"We're starting to hear stories like, 'Oh, I have a 10 year old kid. My kid can't be vaccinated yet,'" Rau said. "So I think certain people are less willing to maybe go than in the past, but with everyone who doesn't want to go there are five people ready to claim their seats."
Rau said only few wore masks before last week, but at the last match on July 22, he said close to 5% wore masks. Based on sheer estimation as well as what he's heard, Rau said he expects a significant minority to pull out the masks once again when Austin FC plays on Saturday.
Masking recommendations are fine as long as the stadium remains at full capacity, Rau said.
"It's an annoyance, but it's not a big deal," Rau said. "I think if they ever started reducing capacity, that's where there would be true hell to pay."
While supporters groups, like the city of Austin, can't enforce mask mandates, Rau told Austonia they'll strongly recommend masking in certain situations, including taking a bus up to Dallas for the upcoming FC Dallas match. Rau said Stage 4 has brought new concerns and paperwork into the picture for the road trip.
"It's wild. Like, as a supporters' group, we never thought we'd have to worry about collecting people's health records," Rau said. "It is extremely important to us to keep our Verde familia safe,"
Could Q2 become a "superspreader"?
Some have drawn parallels to last fall when City Council Member Greg Casar and Austin Public Health officials strongly advised against in-person fans at University of Texas football games while in Stage 4.
No public official, including Austin FC fan Steve Adler, has commented, which a few have criticized. A city in which 63% of those eligible are fully vaccinated is different from the fall of 2020, however, and Q2 is still within CDC guidelines that don't recommend masks for those fully vaccinated while outdoors.
Still, some share concerns about the crowded stadium becoming a "superspreader," especially after a mass COVID outbreak in Scotland was tied to fans attending Euro 2020 soccer matches. Up to 2,000 fans traced their infection back to a single match, and controversial journalist Piers Morgan, who was fully vaccinated, said he tested positive for COVID on Tuesday after attending the Euro Cup final.
Now THATS a super spreader for the Delta variant. Learned today that the virus spreads like smoke in the air. Let’s get vaxxed up y’all.— Nick Garza (@nickrgarza) July 23, 2021
No matter the changes, Rau said that the fan club has supported Austin FC even in the strictest of COVID policies and won't stop now.
"We dealt with this at Colorado when we took a couple hundred people to Denver," Rau said. "But we were still able to have a great time in the middle of a pandemic."
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After Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating a ban on public camping, City Council directed staff to look into possible sanctioned campsites where homeless residents could live legally. Now two members are asking to shelve discussion on the controversial topic.
Staff presented dozens of possible sanctioned campsites across each fo the 10 council districts in late May, following the election. But members mostly pushed back on the proposed locations, citing cost, wildfire risk and lack of transparency as concerns.
With updated criteria, staff recommended two sites—one in District 1 and the other in District 8—for further review last week. After being briefed on the options during Tuesday's work session, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, and Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents District 8, issued a joint statement proposing "a pause" on further discussion of temporary sanctioned encampments.
"We are not convinced that these sites would be a cost-effective solution, but rather a band-aid tactic when we need to be supporting the long-term strategy to get folks off the street permanent," they said. "It is our responsibility to look at the situation holistically and objectively, and to spend out city's limited resources on solutions we know can work."
Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey noted that the two locations were imperfect and would require a lot of time and money to outfit as sanctioned campsites during the briefing.
City staff and homeless experts have previously raised concerns about sanctioned encampments, saying they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to to be temporary.
In 2019, staff declined to make recommendations for such sites despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."
But with Prop B being enforced and too few shelter beds and affordable units for the estimate unsheltered homeless population in Austin, the city is facing the same predicament that prompted District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo to pursue possible sanctioned campsites in the first place: "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said at a May 6 council meeting.
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Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
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