Austinites experienced a deja vu moment Thursday as Mayor Steve Adler and Austin Public Health officials once again took to a press conference to announce they were imposing stricter recommendations according to the city's risk-based COVID-19 guidelines.
With an average of 15 or more individuals hospitalized due to COVID complications in the Austin metro every day for the past seven days, officials announced a return to Stage 3 and recommended that unvaccinated individuals wear masks while in public places. APH officials believe that the highly contagious Delta variant may be to blame for the recent increase in cases and related hospitalizations.
While Austin is the first Texas metro to increase COVID recommendations since dropping masking restrictions, other major U.S. cities including Las Vegas and Los Angeles have done the same as all 50 states are reporting a sudden uptick in cases.
It wasn't welcome news to anyone, including Adler himself.
"I hate that we are here together again at a press conference talking about the virus," he said at the Thursday press conference. "I had thought and hoped that we would not be in front of you again talking about a rise in COVID cases."
While Stage 3 recommendations don't affect fully vaccinated individuals, some Austin businesses, including Waterloo Records, brought back masking requirements in the wake of the announcement. Austinites, who had just begun a summer of recovery after a long pandemic year, may now revert to more cautious behavior in light of the uptick in new cases.
Unfortunately, with Covid infections rising in Austin, even some of the fully vaccinated getting infected, the uncertainty of the delta variant, and with Austin now in stage 3 on a collision course with stage 4 restrictions, we are going back to requiring masks at all times.
— Waterloo Records (@WaterlooRecords) July 15, 2021
So, what would it take for masking to come back to Austin?
Austin's daily new case rate has tripled in recent days, and new hospitalization admissions have increased to up to 22 on Thursday. "Almost everyone" who has been admitted to a hospital has been unvaccinated, Austin Public Health Interim Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said Thursday, spurring on more requests from city officials for residents to get fully vaccinated.
More than 61% of Travis County residents ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated, less than 10 percentage points short of the threshold for herd immunity, but local officials implored unvaccinated residents to get the shot. Although it is possible that fully vaccinated individuals get COVID, they are much less likely to suffer severe cases or death. Of the city's 34,000+ positive cases, 333—or less than 1%—belonged to vaccinated residents.
On Thursday, KXAN reported that a fully-vaccinated grandfather was sent to the emergency room after catching what was thought to be the Delta variant and spreading the virus to his unvaccinated grandchildren. All have since recovered.
Heather McClain, grandfather Frank Guardiola's daughter, told KXAN that she's still grateful for the vaccine and wonders what could've happened without it. "I hear people saying, 'The shot doesn't do anything, and you can still get it.' Well, yeah, you can, just like you can still get the flu or anything else," McLain said. "Having people realize that if [the vaccine] is going to make a difference of my dad just dealing with those symptoms here at home versus my dad or a loved one being in a hospital or in an ICU or even worse, then I would take the vaccine."
Even if a larger spike occurs, mask mandates will no longer be permitted in Austin or any Texas city after Gov. Greg Abbott prohibited them in March. Still, the city could move its recommendations back up to Stage 4 for the first time since March if the seven-day moving average of new hospitalizations increases from 30-90, depending on how quickly it increases.
Unlike Stage 3, Stage 4 guidelines would recommend that both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks at all times. Under Stage 4, Travis County recommends that partially vaccinated or unvaccinated residents not attend outdoor or indoor gatherings and limit travel and dining/shopping to only essential activities.
Austin Public Heath recommends everyone wear a mask if raised to Stage 4 guidelines. (Austin Public Health)
Even with increased caution and a spike in cases, Austin seems relatively far from requiring masking. Still, Adler said it's foolish to assume that COVID is over in the Texas capital. "We cannot pretend that we are done with a virus that is not done with us," he said.
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- San Marcos favorite Industry Burger opens "mid-October" on E. 5th, featuring "low key healthy" Texas fare.
- Still Austin Whiskey Co. introduces "The Artist," its new rye whiskey.
- Domain NORTHSIDE favorites Bakery Lorraine, Grimaldi's Pizzeria, Jeni's Ice Cream and Sprinkles released their fall flavors.
- Cinnaholic at The Arboretum opens Friday, October 14, serving "create your own" cinnamon rolls and other sweet treats.
- San Francisco's Marufuku Ramen opens next Wednesday, October 12, in the Mueller District.
- Carpenter Hotel announces its popup food truck, Lil Carpenter, open Fri-Sun both ACL weekends, serving what you want, early to late, coffee to donuts, to dogs/burgers/fries/beer.
With major entertainment events slated for October, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is gearing up for a busy month.
Artists and music lovers are set to pack into Zilker Park for The Austin City Limits Music Festival in the coming two weekends. Following that, Formula One will bring racing fans to the Circuit of the Americas.
For those two events, the airport is anticipating high passenger days with 30,000 or more people departing flights.
ABIA recommends arriving at least two and a half hours in advance for domestic flights on those days. For ACL, it's expected on both Sundays of the festival along with the Monday and Tuesday after. The F1-driven high passenger days are expected on Oct. 20-21 and Oct. 23-26.
\u201c#AustinCityLimits visitors, you\u2019re in for a weird and wild ride \ud83e\udd18\u262e\ufe0f \n\nFlying in or out of our airport? We got firm and fun tips for you: https://t.co/RawVRalOXN\u201d— Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) (@Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)) 1664894083
F1, especially, could draw in loads of travelers as the three-day event saw 400,000 attendees last year. ABIA warns that highways leading to the airport may see even higher traffic than usual around the event and that travelers should plan their route accordingly.
Bailey Grimmett, a spokesperson for ABIA, said travel numbers come in 24 hours in advance. So, it's hard to predict if the airport will see travel volumes at the same levels that have happened around previous F1 races or if it'll top ACL's flight traffic.
Still, she says historical knowledge points to a chance for it.
“We've had that Monday after F1 break the record for single busiest in airport history," Grimmett said. "So context clues I would say yes, but I can't confirm that. But the historical background points to that."
In anticipation of the high volume of flyers, the airport received additional TSA officers for security screening through the end of October. To prepare even further, the Department of Aviation and partners hosted a job showcase and hiring fair to address the continued labor shortage the airport has experienced.
Relief from hectic travel days is on the horizon with November likely to see a slowdown.
"I don't anticipate it will be as busy as October just because we don't have as many events going on," Grimmett said. "Thanksgiving is kind of our primary holiday that we see a lot of passengers coming in and out of the airport."