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With new COVID cases rising across Texas and the U.S., local health officials advised Austinites to take more precautions—and advocated for a possible rollback of restaurant capacity limits—to avoid another surge.
"We're not at the stage of recommending a lockdown, but certainly we need people to take less risk in the coming weeks," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said on Monday.
Travis County is now reporting a moving average of 135 new COVID cases each day, around a 40% increase since Nov. 1.
The Austin metro is also seeing an increase in COVID-related hospitalizations. The moving average is 25, as of Sunday evening, compared to 17.4 on Nov. 1.
Escott compared the current situation to that of the region on June 17, two weeks ahead of its peak.
"We are in a precarious spot right now," he said.
Despite expressing hope last month that bars could reopen in the near future, Escott revised his recommendation to include not only keeping bars closed but also rolling back capacity limits for other businesses.
"The discussion we should be anticipating in the coming weeks is, 'Do we need to scale back on risk? Do we need to ask restaurants to move back 50% to 75%?'" he said, adding that the logical next step may be to ask the governor to do so.
Although local trend lines are concerning, Travis County is faring better than other metropolitan areas across Texas—with fewer active cases per capita than Harris, El Paso, Dallas, Tarrant or Bexar counties, according to the Department of State Health Services—and the country as a whole.
In the last two weeks, the U.S. has reported more than 111,000 new COVID cases a day—a nearly 60% increase compared to two weeks ago—and Texas has reported more new cases in the last week than any other state other than Illinois, according to the New York Times.
Local hospitals have already accepted "a handful" of COVID patients from other jurisdictions that have exceeded their capacity, such as El Paso, which occurred during the previous surge and stresses the state's response plan.
If cases in Austin continue to rise, the area will not be able to offer aid to other parts of the state, either in the form of hospital beds or medical professionals, Escott explained.
Additionally, the upcoming holiday season is a concern.
Austin Public Health Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said case investigations have traced some recent cases to Halloween festivities.
"I would anticipate that Thanksgiving would have a similar impact, which is why we're trying to stress these prevention measures," she said.
The COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin now estimates there is an 88% chance that the pandemic is growing in Austin and projects daily hospital admissions will begin to increase more steeply in late November, based on the current rate of transmission.
(COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin)
Along with potential policy changes, local health officials emphasized that Austinites could help flatten this curve by redoubling their adherence to protective measures, limiting their interactions to members of their own households and avoiding unnecessary trips.
"We don't have to have a second surge," Escott said.
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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that Texas will opt out of further federal unemployment benefits related to the pandemic effective June 26, citing the number of current job openings and concern about potentially fraudulent unemployment claims. The benefits include a $300 weekly supplement.
"The Texas economy is booming and employers are hiring communities across the state," Abbott said in a statement. "According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the number of job openings in Texas is almost identical to the number of Texans who are receiving unemployment jobs."
TWC listed 837,273 job openings as of Monday afternoon compared to 226,849 unemployment insurance claims filed statewide between March 31 and May 1. An estimated 1 million Texans were unemployed as of March, according to latest estimates released by the state agency.
Some local business owners, including Doc's Backyard Grill owner Charles Milligan, suspect unemployment benefits are deterring Austinites from returning to work. But others agree with economists who say multiple factors are at play, including health concerns and child care availability.
We're seeing lots of posts about how nobody wants to work right now. Just wanted to share our experience.
We received over 60 resumes for a taproom bartender position we posted last week. Every applicant we've set up an interview with has shown up.
People want 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥 work.
— Austin Beerworks (@AustinBeerworks) May 11, 2021
Abbott also cited fraudulent unemployment claims. Between March 2020 and April 2021, TWC received 4.48 million unemployment benefit applications, 611,000 or around 14% of which were tagged as suspicious. Most of those tagged were blocked before any benefits were paid out, according to an April 29 press release.
Federal law requires the effective date of such benefits change to be at least 30 days after the U.S. Department of Labor is notified.
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