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COVID update: here's what it would take for mask mandates to return to Austin

Masking requirements could return to Austin, though no legal requirement can be made.

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.

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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