Austin health officials ask residents to stay home for July 4th as field hospital prep gets underway
Heading into the Fourth of July weekend, Austin health officials begged residents to stay away from each other to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
"You really must stay home right now," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said during a media call Wednesday.
Since the state began reopening in early May, the rate of new cases and related hospitalizations has grown exponentially, threatening testing and hospital capacity.
Officials expect Travis County's confirmed caseload to surpass 10,000 later today.
A second shutdown
Dr. Escott provided a threshold for when he will recommend that Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe issue new stay-home orders.
"If [the seven-day moving average for new hospital admissions] surpasses 70, then I will make that recommendation," he said.
Right now, the moving average is 55, according to the county's COVID-19 dashboard. Yesterday, 67 patients were admitted to area hospitals with COVID-19. Dr. Escott said that he may make the recommendation sooner, especially if surrounding jurisdictions seem poised to exceed their hospital capacity—which would likely cause spillover into Travis County facilities.
"I'm concerned about our neighbors in San Antonio and Bexar County, who are reporting more than 1,000 cases a day right now," he said.
Flattening the curve
As of yesterday, Austin's three hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare—reported that 72% of their collective 2,470 staffed hospital beds are occupied and 80% of their 483 ICU beds are.
Dr. Escott is less concerned about hospital capacity—which he said is normally within the 85% to 95% range—than he is with the increasing rate at which new cases are being reported in Austin and elsewhere.
"We cannot afford to have major fires burning in all of our major cities [in Texas] and expect to be able to provide hospital beds to everyone who gets sick if we don't make serious changes right now," he said.
To this end, Dr. Escott asked Austinites to stay home when possible and to be vigilant about masking, social distancing and hygiene when not.
"We cannot afford missteps right now," he said. "Not this weekend."
Convention center prep
In response, Dr. Escott has issued a request for federal funding to build out an alternate care site. Although the city has not officially announced its location, local officials have said it will be hosted at the Austin Convention Center.
"It will take several weeks for us to build it up in such a way to start taking patients," Dr. Escott said, adding that it will be outfitted in installments to match the demand for care.
The total capacity of the site, as detailed in the city's surge plan, is around 1,500 low-acuity patients.
If staffing the alternative care site, or area hospitals, becomes an issue, Dr. Escott said he has received confirmation from the White House that it will provide additional medical personnel through the U.S. military.
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Chi Lee, the director of architecture firm HKS’s new Austin office, describes this point in our city’s life as puberty.
“Our voices are changing and we have freckles everywhere,” Lee said. “You know, starting to look like an adult but still acting like a kid kind of thing.”
But as Austin matures and faces all the pressures of its increased popularity—competing for company relocations and expansions all while managing rising rents and affordability woes—Lee thinks we should look outside when planning an approach to Austin’s growth.
“A big mistake we could make is if we don't embrace what other cities, nationally, regionally, internationally have done to improve upon the experience of all the folks who live there.”
Chi Lee and Brad Wilkins (HKS)
Lee and HKS studio design leader Brad Wilkins keep this in mind as the firm, which has carried out projects in Austin since the 80s, further cements its presence here.
HKS is making ambitious strides in Austin: the firm has more than 50 projects in design or under construction in the Austin market, including Domain 9, the Dell Children’s Medical Center expansion and projects in the Rainey Street District including one that may end up being the tallest tower in Texas.
The Bowie, a 36-story apartment tower HKS designed in Austin's Central Business District. (HKS)
“We've been able to do things during the pandemic, and since then, which are really pushing the boundaries of what Austin would typically do. And frankly, what would be done anywhere in the world,” Wilkins said. “Things like having outdoor space on every level of an office tower and creating the spaces not just to be like outdoor spaces, but to be spaces that people can actually enjoy.”
As these projects span all over the city, Lee and Wilkins are observant of how action on certain quality of life factors could be key to preventing problems as Austin draws in a larger population.
For Wilkins, that’s informed by his international work. He’s lived in about half a dozen places in Europe and Asia, starting his career out in Chicago. He’s carried out big projects and was one of the designers of the first LEED platinum building just outside of Hong Kong.
“One thing that we're always needing to be very careful about is looking at things that were not done great,” Wilkins said. “There are mistakes in public transportation in those cities that I worked in overseas, there are mistakes in public housing.”
It’s partly why the pair see Project Connect—the $7.1 billion transit system expansion voters approved in November 2020 that includes light rail lines, a downtown subway and an expanded bus system—as a boon to the city’s future.
Lee said he’s excited that HKS is working on a couple of projects that are along the future lines and sees it as a massive opportunity for the city.
“We need to get out of our cars if we can. We just don't have the type of transportation infrastructure in place that needs to be in place,” Lee said. “A lot of major metropolitan and urban cities have subway systems and light rail systems and things like that, where we don't.”
The Ashton (HKS)
Still, someday Austin will. The plan is trudging ahead with moves on anti-displacement initiatives and collecting input on design proposals for key lines. So even while HKS prepares for changes to the city from the ground up, Lee and Wilkins aim to maintain the city’s personality.
“I'm always more about the local place, not the international place, even though I do bring with me international experience,” Wilkins said. “Chi and I are only interested in doing Austin, we're interested in making Austin special, keeping Austin culture.”
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Austin may still be the most expensive metro area for Texas renters, with reports of rent rising upwards of 25-40%, but the apartment hunting process can still be daunting no matter your budget.
There are a lot of neighborhoods, apartment complexes and prices floating around, which can make the already difficult hunting process more confusing. Smart City apartment locator and lifelong Austinite Maddie Hastings told Austonia which areas are trendiest, cheapest, most over-hyped and hidden gems.
Quick tips from Hastings:
- Don’t do it alone: Apartment locators offer free services from licensed real estate agents that usually have “behind the scenes” information.
- Don’t rely on online prices: Apartment prices change every day and third-party websites usually don’t have up-to-date information on capacity or current rates.
- Take everything with a grain of salt: Read recent reviews and try to see through photos of staged units.
Hottest: Downtown, Barton Springs and South Congress(Earl McGehee/CC)
Hastings said only a small portion of people she locates have previously lived in the Austin area—with the city’s growth, many come from Chicago, New York or the West Coast.
New residents tend to want to be near Austin’s most famous landmarks like Zilker Park, Barton Springs and Downtown, Hastings said. The problem is that housing in those areas is often limited and expensive, between $1,918-$3,163 on average, according to RentCafe, though she understands the hype.
“I do like South Austin because I feel like it's more accessible and easier to get downtown—it's close to Zilker Park, close to Barton Springs,” Hastings said. “A lot of people want to be downtown and the rest want to be in that South Central area where South Lamar, South Congress and South First is.”
Not: North Austin suburbs and Riverside(Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock)
Hastings said it isn’t that she doesn’t place people in apartments in places like Round Rock, Pflugerville and Cedar Park, it just tends to be people that work in the area, are specifically looking to live in the area or have an “outside reason” drawing them there.”
Meanwhile, Hastings said that one neighborhood she consistently hears people don’t want to live in is Riverside, which is a cheaper option with the average tenant paying $1,583 per month, according to RentCafe.
Though Hastings says not to let that taint your image of East Austin. If you like the price but don’t want to live in Riverside, Hastings recommends looking at apartments in Montopolis and Pleasant Valley.
“They do have some nice, newer complexes,” Hastings said. “So for me, I mean, it's a great way to get a good price on a new place that's close to downtown.”
Most underrated: Mueller and Southpark Meadows
Though it may be on the more expensive side, about $2,000 on average for a one-bedroom, Hastings said she really enjoyed living in the Mueller area herself. The perks: It’s relatively newly developed, home to the biggest farmer’s market in town, has restaurants and coffee shops, trails and feels like a good neighborhood area.
“I personally love Mueller,” Hastings said. “It has that neighborhood feel but it's one of the few walkable areas in Austin. I really like that you get everything you need, right in that little area, and it's so close to Central Austin and downtown.”
Hastings also said she loves living in Southpark Meadows, which may be a bit cheaper, has easy highway access, nearby shopping and may also land you a newer building.
“If it was me looking on my own, and I had to consider money, that's personally where I would recommend people to get the most bang for their buck,” Hastings said.
Most overrated: South Lamar and The Domain(Peter French/CC)
Hastings said she understands the immediate appeal behind wanting to live at The Domain—the shopping, restaurants, glamor and bar scene—but doesn’t like the traffic, higher price tag and lack of “Austin” character”
Plus, Hastings said she doesn’t often see people living there for long.
“People move to Austin because it's quirky and different and while The Domain is a good time, it's just super commercialized so you're not really getting the Austin experience,” Hastings said. “It's not my favorite, I've definitely leased a few people in The Domain and then after a year they’re like, ‘Yeah, I'm over it, I'm ready to be somewhere else.’”
Hastings had opposite things to say about South Lamar—she thinks it embodies the city’s character—but there just isn’t enough housing to go around right now because it’s in such high demand. Plus, it has a pricey average rent at $1,918, according to RentCafe.
“I understand why everyone wants to live on South Lamar—that’s where everyone wants to be,” Hastings said. “And I can't really say it's overrated because there are so many restaurants and things to do.”
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