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Austin And Travis County Move To Highest Restriction Level To Limit COVID-19 Spread

Signs in the hallway of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy tell people to wear masks and wash their hands.
Signs in the hallway of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy tell people to wear masks and wash their hands.

Austin and Travis County have moved into stage 5 restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, officials announced at a news conference Wednesday. At this level, residents are urged to stay home and businesses are asked to operate only through curbside and delivery.

Austin Public Health's interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said the community had reached another "critical moment": Since Dec. 1, there has been a 97% increase in new cases diagnosed in Travis County and an 80% increase in the moving average of daily hospital admissions. He said he was concerned about hospital staffing and resources should Austin see the type of surge going on in other parts of the state.

"Due to this ongoing worsening condition and the uncontrolled widespread community transmission of COVID-19, we are going to be elevating our community risk level to stage 5, which is our highest level of risk," he said.

Stage 5 recommendations include:

  • Not gathering with anyone outside your household
  • Limiting dining and shopping to essential trips
  • Avoiding nonessential travel
  • Offering contactless options for business (i.e., curbside or delivery)

APH Director Stephanie Hayden said the area is seeing the results of Thanksgiving gatherings and urged people to celebrate the upcoming holidays only with those who live in their households.

"Eyes should be on future celebrations," she said.

The area reported 672 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, the highest number in a single day since July 9. Seventy more people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the area, pushing the seven-day average of new hospital admissions up to 54.

Officials look at these numbers to determine what stage of risk the area is in and to suggest measures people should take to avoid contracting or spreading the virus.

Escott said the positivity rate is going up, which suggests more cases and hospitalizations are ahead. He said he expected to see close to 80 new hospital admissions today and urged residents to heed the recommendations.

"I am concerned about the one-two punch of Christmas and New Year's," he said.

Escott said the hospital system is stable now, but the concern is if the surge continues and more staffing and beds are needed.

"I'm not sure that they are there," he said.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown said the area is "entering a dangerous time," but he was confident the community could flatten the curve if people followed the stage 5 recommendations. That includes businesses limiting occupancy to 50% capacity and encouraging pickup or delivery. Restaurants are asked to close indoor dining altogether. All retail and dining establishments are urged to end services between 10:30 p.m. and 5 a.m.

"We need to make sacrifices, because we don't want to have to question whether we have capacity in our ICUs," Brown said.

If the community does its part, the officials said, there will be no need for more restrictive measures like a curfew.

Escott said he is recommending school superintendents suspend or limit extracurricular activities where masking and social distancing cannot be followed. He said Austin Public Health would monitor the situation after the winter break; if cases and hospitalizations continue an “aggressive upward fashion,” he would recommend schools go virtual.

An exception could be made for elementary schools, he said, because the data suggests these students benefit most from in-person learning and are most affected when classes move online.

Hayden said enforcement officials would provide warnings and technical assistance to businesses and that citations – "progressive in nature" – would be issued.

The guidelines are recommendations not orders, however.

"We can't enforce our way into compliance," Mayor Steve Adler said. "Ultimately it is up to us as a community."

This story has been updated.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit .

Stephanie Federico is a human person.