Travis County is now in Stage 4 according to Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, and local officials have asked businesses to limit their capacity to at least 50% in an attempt to avoid the "catastrophic surge" seen in other Texas jurisdictions.
"None of us want to close businesses. None of us want to close schools," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said during a press conference on Thursday. "That is an absolute last resort for us."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ruled out "any more lockdowns" last week, according to the Texas Tribune, prompting some pushback from local officials in the most affected areas.
Since Nov. 1, Travis County has reported a 130% increase in the average number of new COVID cases reported each day. Meanwhile, the average number of new COVID-related hospitalizations each day has nearly doubled.
With no change in the current transmission rate, the Austin metro could see demand for ICU beds more than triple its current capacity by March, according to updated projections from the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas Austin.
Although the Austin area is faring better relative to other Texas metros, including El Paso and Dallas, local health officials are concerned that Thanksgiving gatherings will further accelerate transmission.
"It's effectively Labor Day and Memorial Day and Independence Day combined into one big event," Escott said, noting that Thanksgiving poses "the most significant risk" seen since the pandemic began.
At Stage 4, Austin Public Health recommends residents to avoid any non-essential travel and businesses operate at 25% to 50% capacity. Higher-risk individuals, including those over 65 or who have preexisting conditions, are also encouraged to avoid gatherings of more than two people.
"If we don't take the steps to change now … we could be in Stage 5 territory in just a few weeks," Escott said.
Stage 5 recommendations include avoiding all gatherings outside of one's household and any non-essential trips.
The threshold for Stage 4 has changed since Travis County was last at this risk level in August.
Previously, it was an average of 40 new COVID-related hospital admissions each day. However, given concerns about ICU staffing levels at area hospitals, local health officials have lowered it to 30. The threshold for Stage 5 has also changed, from 70 to 50.
Austin area hospitals have also taken in at least 13 patients from other jurisdictions that have already exceeded their local capacity.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler pointed out that the last time the region was in Stage 4 and approaching Stage 5, residents successfully flattened the curve.
"We have control over our future," he said. "We've done this before, now let's do it again. The vaccine is close. We're almost there."
This time around, however, a major holiday threatens to accelerate the spread of COVID—and pandemic fatigue may be testing people's adherence to protective measures.
This Thanksgiving, Austinites should avoid gathering with people outside of their household, Escott said. For those who choose to do so against expert advice, he stressed the need to wear masks and maintain social distancing.
Escott also cautioned those who are getting tested this week from being lulled into a false sense of security.
"A negative test this week does not provide you any effective protection for next week," he said.
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In May, Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein looked back on 10 years of Formula 1's U.S. Grand Prix at COTA confident that the race would be here to stay in Texas. But sources tell Austonia that securing another contract may be in jeopardy.
Some insiders worry that COTA's 2021 Grand Prix race might be its last.
The multi-day fest from Oct. 22-24 will include a 56-lap race over the 3.3-mile track, food and musical performances from two acts, including Billy Joel at COTA's 1,500-acre facility in Southeast Austin. But after this year, the U.S.' first F1-specific track could lose its headline event.
The facility's inability to secure a contract thus far comes down to the Texas Legislature, a new threat in Miami, and, most importantly, money.
The first F 1 race will take place in Miami next year. (Hard Rock Stadium)
Every year, Formula 1 receives roughly $25 million from Texas' Major Events Reimbursement Program, a taxpayer-funded initiative that helps bring big sporting events like 2017's Houston Super Bowl to the state. A 2019 report by the Reimbursements Program on that year's race said the "data is inconclusive" on if the event has a positive or negative economic impact on the state with the resources given. In 2018, the Austin-American Statesman reported that COTA had brought back a total of $75.7 million between 2015 and 2017 for hosting the U.S. Grand Prix.
Legal issues have also barred Epstein and Co. from securing another 10-year contract earlier: in 2018, the company lost its yearly $25 million bid after failing to submit a human trafficking prevention plan as part of its yearly application.
That same year, F1 managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches told the Associated Press that the organization hopes to stay at COTA "for many years to come."
However, in May, the racing league announced that it had secured a 10-year contract to hold the Miami Grand Prix as American interest in the sport soared following the three-season "Drive to Survive" documentary, which gives behind-the-scenes looks at drivers and races of the Formula One World Championship.
Epstein is optimistic about the new U.S. location and told Autoweek in May that "more race in our time zones are good for the sport."
"I think we're getting double the impact this way," Epstein said. "Miami should sell out huge the first year and maybe the second year and then after that, I think we'd be spitting audience if we were around the same time on the calendar. So the spread is fantastic."
Bobby Epstein recognizes the 1 millionth customer of COTA in 2013. (COTA/Facebook)
The new F1 venture may impact COTA's contract, however: in an opinion piece for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, writer Mac Engel said Texas is unlikely to fork over taxpayer money if the facility is no longer the only F1 track in the U.S.
According to Engel, the Major Events Reimbursements Program agrees to provide funding only "if Austin holds the only F1 race in the country."
Epstein hasn't addressed such claims; by contrast, he feels as though there's room for a third race in the U.S. as ticket sales rebound after COVID.
"In the first week, we sold pretty much all the tickets we put up for sale and we plan to break the 2019 attendance record," Epstein told Autoweek. "Texas was the first place to lift COVID-19 restrictions (in the U.S.) and put on sporting events, and we're full. We're at 100% capacity.
Despite ventures to diversify revenue at COTA—Epstein's USL soccer team Austin Bold has seen its own share of troubles, and the facility plans to develop into a multi-faceted entertainment arena complete with music venues, a waterpark, condominiums and an 11-story hotel—a loss of its primary event could be devastating for the $300 million complex.
F1 has rarely lasted more than a decade at venues in the U.S. over the last century; let's hope Austin breaks that curse.
COTA's media relations team did not immediately get back to Austonia for comment.
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Houston? Dallas? San Antonio? No, it has to be Austin.
We know Californians love Texas, but a recent string of posts on neighborhood platform Nextdoor in Santa Barbara, California, displays what the craze to move to Austin looks like.
When one user posted, "Hi neighbors, I want to buy a house in Houston, Texas any recommendations?" the responses flooded in displaying what the admiration for Austin looks like from the West Coast. Users mostly advised against a move to Houston; one person even wrote, "Austin is the ONLY place to consider!!"
While some defended H-town, saying, "Awesome place to live," one person wrote, "WORST PLACE TO LIVE." Reasons to not move to Houston from Californians' perspective included:
- "Foul air from refineries"
- "horrible flooding due to the flat Gulf coastal shelf"
- "crazy zoning"
- "racial prejudice"
- "super high humidity"
- "very conservative"
The comments were shifted to Austin's lush greenery, weather and acceptance of gay people.
Over the last five years, Austin has seen more migrants from California than any other state, according to an Austin Chamber of Commerce report. The Austin appeal from residents living in more congested places like California became more prevalent during the pandemic when stay-at-home orders were issued and people sought more space.
It wasn't just Austin though; lots of other Sunbelt cities saw an influx in their housing market as a result of people working from home and looking for a lower cost of living. And that included Texas in general, with people flooding to various Texas cities.
But it hasn't come with resistance. The "Don't California my Texas" pleas are still alive and well, as Californians are blamed for raising the cost of living by outpricing current residents. The housing market has reached record numbers in the median home price year-over-year since the beginning of the pandemic. Austin was even predicted to be the most expensive city outside of California by the end of the year.
Still, Californians and even New Yorkers can't stay away. Companies and celebrities have followed, leading Texas transplant Elon Musk to label Austin's future as "the biggest boomtown that America has seen in half a century."