Austin Public Health suggests operational changes if governor allows bars to reopen


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Staff members at Austin Public Health are preparing for the possibility of Gov. Greg Abbott allowing bars in Texas to reopen by suggesting changes in the ways that those businesses should operate during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

During the agency’s weekly briefing on the disease Wednesday, Dr. Mark Escott, the interim health authority for Austin-Travis County, said environmental health workers as well as bar owners are working on guidance to share with those businesses in the event they can open again.

“There would have to be substantial changes to the way a bar functions to make it safe,” Dr. Escott said.

Those changes, he said, may include requiring customers to remain seated once inside a bar as well as preventing people from gathering at the bar counter to order.

“We are definitely concerned about bars,” Stephanie Hayden, the Austin Public Health director, said.

She added the agency would continue its effort to issue warnings to businesses for noncompliance even after the state allows them to reopen.

Flattening the curve

Leaders from Austin Public Health expressed appreciation for people maintaining safety practices like social distancing, mask wearing and hand hygiene because the area experienced a flattening recently of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“We are the one city with a decline or flatness in our curve,” Janet Pichette, the chief epidemiologist, said Wednesday.

At Tuesday’s Travis County Commissioners Court, Dr. Escott said the area’s daily new COVID-19 hospitalization average fell to 12 new patients a day for the third time on Oct. 4, but each time the average increased. Newly reported numbers indicate the hospitalization average is now 14. If it gets to 10 and the area sustains that number, Dr. Escott said officials would consider moving the risk level guidelines to Stage 2, and they’d feel “more comfortable” opening things further.

Dr. Escott also said the test positivity rate is the lowest it has ever been during the pandemic at 3.8%.

School extracurriculars

Dr. Escott added on Wednesday that flattening is “okay” right now because Austin-Travis County increased its risky actions, like reopening schools. For example, on Oct. 5, the Austin Independent School District allowed classes to resume in person at 25% capacity.

However, Dr. Escott warned that extracurricular activities remain a concern, especially after positive COVID-19 cases led to the postponement of football games at two school districts. He is recommending that students involved in those activities should wear masks and social distance even when they’re at home, which would reduce the risk of sickening others who live with them.

Regarding teachers, Dr. Escott said they should report any potential safety violations to a single point of contact at their schools, which he said should have been named already.

President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis

The leaders at Austin Public Health answered a question about what impact President Trump’s statements and actions since his COVID-19 diagnosis have had on the public messaging in the ongoing fight against COVID-19.

Without citing Trump’s name directly, Dr. Escott said leaders should “choose our words carefully” and not share conflicting information because the disease has now killed more than 210,000 Americans and sickened millions more.

“We should not minimize the disease,” he said. “We don’t need to live in fear, but we do need to live in respect of this disease.”

Hayden reiterated that COVID-19 is here in the community and that it will remain there for the foreseeable future.

“As leaders, we’ve got to take a stance, and we can’t be for just me as an individual,” she said.

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