Austin officials ask people to cancel New Year’s Eve plans as COVID positivity rate reaches shutdown levels
City of Austin officials are asking residents to cancel their New Year's Eve plans and stay inside unless absolutely necessary under the threat of hospitals reaching maximum capacity.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott announced that Austin's positivity rate jumped up more than two points to 12.7% and the ICU is dangerously close, a little over halfway, to hitting capacity.
Once hospital ICU utilization hits capacity, it impacts the ability to take in patients that need emergency care for other reasons, like heart attacks or car wrecks, Escott said.
"Certainly the lesson learned from El Paso and Lubbock and Abilene and the other places that have faced a significant surge already, is that once you run out of ICU beds, you run out of ICU beds for everybody," Escott said. "That means that all these other people who need critical care will not have it because the hospitals are overwhelmed."
Simultaneously, Texas hospitals are seeing record hospitalization numbers. The state hit a high of 11,351 COVID-19-related hospitalizations on Monday, breaking the previous record of 10,893 in July.
With other major counties in Texas seeing similar surges, outside help might not be an option if the time comes. Escott said he expects ICUs to exceed capacity during the first week of January and the positivity rate to jump higher as cases resulting from holiday and new year celebrations.
"As the disease transmission increases in the community, it increases the likelihood that transmission will happen," Escott said. "Defenses become a lot more difficult when more people are capable of transmitting this disease so we need to limit that risk as much as possible."
Although a curfew has not yet been confirmed, Austin Public Health officials have already asked restaurants to abide by a 10:30 p.m. curfew and discussed implementing one for individuals, possibly by the end of this week.
"If we take individuals who are exposed during Christmas gatherings, and put them in boxes on New Year's Eve, and pack them together for hours, the projection is going to be overwhelming," Escott said. "It's gonna happen very, very quickly. I do not think we could afford to take that risk."
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By Cecilia Lenzen
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s lead over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke narrowed to 6 points last month, according to a poll conducted by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. That’s a smaller gap than when Republican George W. Bush ousted Democrat Ann Richards in 1994 with a 7.6-point win.
Abbott’s unfavorability ratings are also the highest they’ve ever been at 44%, according to the poll, which was conducted after the deadliest school shooting in state history and almost entirely before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, said the mass shooting in Uvalde and scrutiny over how it was handled could have contributed to Abbott’s increased unfavorability, but it’s hard to say how much exactly.
The political poll did not include specific questions related to the shooting in Uvalde, but it did ask participants to rate Abbott’s performance on handling gun violence. About 36% of participants said they approve of how the governor has handled this issue, while 45% said they disapprove.
The mass shooting in Uvalde and the overturning of Roe v. Wade have laid the groundwork for a contentious final four months in the race to lead the state. While O’Rourke works to harness the anti-incumbent energy spurred by the seismic events of the past few months, Abbott is banking on a general election centered on stronger issues for him: the economy and the border.
Mounting expectations over how the Supreme Court would rule on abortion access could be another factor that contributed to Abbott’s weakened ratings, Henson said. Although the poll ended the same day Roe v. Wade was overturned, it included questions about abortion access that show how voters feel regarding the issue. About 36% of participants said they approve of how Abbott has handled policies related to abortion access, and 46% said they disapprove.
Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned and Texas is poised to completely outlaw abortion access, it will likely be a pivotal topic in the upcoming months, Henson said.
“If we look back at the half dozen times we’ve asked the standard abortion questions since 2014, no more than a quarter of Republicans have ever said that by law abortion should never be permitted,” he said.
Voters will see that reality reflected in how Abbott and O’Rourke discuss abortion access in the upcoming months, he said.
“In terms of that affecting the election, we can expect Democratic candidates to talk about this a lot, and we can expect Republican candidates to not want to talk about it very much,” Henson said.
Despite the ratings, Abbott carries most of the advantages in the race: His campaign is well funded for a midterm election that is expected to favor Republicans across the country. The governor’s allies argue that voters are more worried about skyrocketing inflation and illegal immigration — and that O’Rourke cannot separate himself from President Joe Biden, who is very unpopular in Texas.
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Add drastically higher development fees onto your list of things that make buying a house in Austin so expensive.
A Texas A&M University Real Estate Research Center study found that Austin’s per-unit fees on new development were 187% higher than Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio. The suburbs aren’t much cheaper as per-unit development fees in Austin are still 127% higher.
According to ABoR CEO Emily Chenevert, high development fees charged by the city are cause for concern around solving the city’s ongoing housing crisis.
“This report confirms what those in the real estate community have known for a long time,” Chenevert said. “Development fees are drastically higher in Austin than most other cities in Central Texas and major metro areas in Texas. This is a huge barrier to building homes and a significant concern considering we are in a housing supply crisis across the region.”
A closer look
The report found that in the Austin-Round Rock metro a suburban unit was charged 80.4% or about $8,000 more than the other five largest metros in Texas. Similarly, infill units—new housing in already developed areas—cost 186.8% more in Austin than on average for Texas.
Those numbers make up 3.4% of the 2021 median housing price of $536,331 per suburban unit, or 7.7% per infill development unit.
What does that mean for buyers?
Steep fees drive up the cost for residents and can have a big impact on first-time buyers. The average Austinite earning the median household income in 2019—$54,871—would be able to afford a $204,556 home loan, of which development fees would make up about 20%, according to the study.
The Austin-Round Rock median house price hasn’t been $205,000 since February 2013, which is less than half of the median price in 2021. Austin-area housing has increased 22%, about $100,000, since the study was conducted.
“These findings, although disconcerting, are unsurprising,” Home Builders Association of Greater Austin CEO Taylor Jackson said. “We need to course correct on how the city of Austin handles home building and time is of the essence.”
Should renters be concerned?
Managing editor for Rent.com Brian Carberry said the renter market tends to follow the housing market, albeit on a few months' delay. Carberry said not only did Austin have less apartment inventory in May 2022 than it did in May 2021, but most new complexes are being built in high-demand areas, meaning people are still being priced out.
“A lot of that is just due to there's just so much demand for apartments and the housing market does play into that a little bit because people are being priced out,” Carberry said. “Your younger millennials, older Gen Z looking for their first homes are in a position where they're unable to afford something because the price has gone up so high and now mortgage rates are so high, it's just not a sustainable option for them right now.”
Is there a solution?
In the study, the Austin Board of Realtors and the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin included joint recommendations for local policymakers:
- Increase transparency in development fees, as a lack of information limits the ability to understand the full impact of the fees.
- Implement development process improvements, including reviewing fee structure, setting goals for housing approval and adopting successful models from similarly-sized cities.
- Right-size development fees, which will become critical as Austin’s urban population grows and infill development increases.
“The National Association of Home Builders 2022 Priced Out Index reports that for every $1,000 increase in the price of a home, whether it be from market forces or development fees, 791 households are priced out of the Austin-Round Rock MSA,” Jackson said. “We urge Austin’s leadership to act and act now or we risk becoming a wholly unaffordable city to build or buy a home in.”