AUSTIN (KXAN) — In an attempt at controlling COVID-19 spread in the Austin area, new countywide orders hope New Year’s Eve celebrations will stay inside homes.
New orders from the City of Austin and Travis County will halt dine-in food and beverage services starting Thursday, Dec. 31 at 10:30 p.m. and lasting through Sunday, Jan. 3 at 6 a.m.
This will not affect takeout, curbside or delivery options, which can continue during those hours.
The limitation also applies to any venue serving food or drink from an onsite kitchen, food truck or catering service. Between 6 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. each day, venues are allowed to continue dine-in operations.
This comes as Austin and Travis County leaders are voicing worry over hospitalization numbers and the increasing strain on hospitals overall.
“The situation is critical,” Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Tuesday night. “We are now experiencing uncontrolled widespread community transmission of COVID-19, particularly in circumstances where masking and distancing are not possible, making bars and similar establishments extremely concerning over this holiday weekend.”
Tuesday night, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he met with Escott and Travis County Judge Andy Brown about next steps.
“The numbers that we are looking at right now frankly are the scariest numbers I have seen since this started in March,” Adler told KXAN.
Adler explained he expects the Austin Code Department, Austin Public Health, Austin Police and the Travis County Fire Marshal’s Office to be involved with enforcing these orders.
Violations of these orders are a criminal offense, the City of Austin noted, and are punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 — but not punishable with jail time.
“You know, I don’t call this a curfew, because in my mind, that gives rise to a lot of things that are much broader than the order we have here. We are not restricting people’s movements, their ability to be able to travel around, their ability to go to the drug store or the grocery store if you’re out at night. So I think what is more descriptive is, kind of just the modification of operations for restaurants; I think that’s probably the most apt description because this is so narrowly drawn just to cover that.”Austin Mayor Steve Adler
Adler reiterated Austin already does not allow gatherings larger than 10, and city and county officials urge against meeting with others outside of your household completely.
“I know it’s hard, but we are asking for this New Year’s Eve holiday, to celebrate it with the people that are in your household,” Adler said.
Gov. Greg Abbott took to Twitter Tuesday night to say his COVID-19 orders don’t allow cities and counties to shut down businesses suddenly.
“This shutdown order by Austin isn’t allowed. Period. My executive order stops cities like Austin from arbitrarily shutting down businesses. The city has a responsibility to enforce existing orders, not make new ones,” Abbott said.
During Thanksgiving, El Paso officials told the press that the curfews they were implementing had been approved by Governor Abbott’s office. KXAN is working to clarify why Austin’s restrictions are receiving pushback while other areas of the states’ curfews have not.
At 11:56 p.m. the official Twitter account for the Texas Attorney General posted, agreeing with Abbott.
“They must rescind or modify their local orders immediately,” said the Attorney General’s office.
Abbott has made it clear during the pandemic that cities implementing business shutdowns would be in violation of his executive order.
But Austin leaders, deeply concerned for Austin’s intensive care facilities, are rushing to find ways to stop coronavirus transmission.
Dr. Escott said Tuesday that Austin’s current COVID-19 hospitalization numbers “are the kind of numbers we would see when we would want to recommend a lockdown.”
But in seeming recognition of the state’s opposition to shutdowns, he added, “We don’t have to order that, people can choose to lock themselves down, to stay home, to make those decisions that are gonna decrease transmission.”
Joining other concerned cities
After actions taken this fall by El Paso and San Antonio to curb spread, Austin becomes the third Texas city to impose such restrictions.
El Paso County officials implemented curfews in October, November and during Christmas, with another curfew for the New Year’s holidays. San Antonio and Bexar County leaders issued partial curfews over the Thanksgiving holiday.
This is the first time during the pandemic that Austin and Travis County have imposed these kinds of orders.
Meanwhile in Houston, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said a curfew is not out of the question if the situation there worsens.
‘We are running out of time’
Escott warned of a possible curfew on Monday, since then, hospitalizations in the Austin area have continued rising.
There were 404 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Sunday, 422 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Monday and 434 hospitalizations on Tuesday in the Austin MSA.
ICU admissions in the area spiked significantly this week, remaining consistent over the past two days with 136 admissions on Sunday, 132 on Monday and 138 on Tuesday.
“We don’t have much capacity left in hospitals and ICUs to take chances this weekend,” Escott noted.
On Tuesday, Travis County reported 697 new COVID-19 cases, the highest daily case total the county has seen since July 9.
Escott said he expects the COVID-19 testing numbers are higher than the current dashboard reflects over Christmas due to people opting not to get tested on the holiday week — but he expects it climb significantly.
The daily moving average of cases for the Austin area, Escott noted, is approaching the levels the region saw during its summer COVID-19 surge.
Escott said Tuesday the most recent projections from UT Austin’s COVID-19 modeling consortium show Christmas and New Year’s gatherings as a “one-two-punch” which will lead to a dramatic increase in hospitalizations and ICU admissions over the next two weeks.
These projections from UT, he noted, are not a crystal ball showing what will happen, but rather what’s likely to happen if transmission continues as it is.
As of Tuesday evening, the seven-day moving average for new hospital admissions for the Austin MSA is at 63.4, a level Austin hasn’t seen since July 20. Escott said the UT models project that if current transmission continues, the moving average for hospital admissions will hit 80 and go “off the chart.”
The median projections from the UT models show Austin will exceed its 200 bed ICU capacity by Jan. 6 or 7 and will require 300 ICU beds by Jan. 14; 400 beds by Jan. 21; and 500 beds by Jan. 28.
Escott clarified while there are more than 200 ICU beds in the Austin area, once the region has 200 ICU beds full, care will be impacted for people who need ICUs for other emergencies like car crashes or heart attacks.
“You can’t possibly care for 500 intensive care patients as well as you can care for 500 or 200,” Escott said. “What we’ve seen in all those places that have experienced that [number of ICU patients] is the death rate goes up substantially, sometimes triple the case fatality rate in those circumstances. So it is serious, we have to act now, we are running out of time.”
Escott said Monday the average of new hospital admissions is up 106% since the beginning of December, and new admissions to intensive care units are up 62% since a week ago. Escott said at this rate, ICUs in the area could run out of beds in a week.
New Year’s concerns
“We have seen a pattern where COVID cases increase significantly after holidays, and today we are in the middle of the holiday season: Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanza and leading into New Year’s Eve,” Travis County Judge Andy Brown said on Tuesday in a Livestream on his Facebook page. “Our COVID numbers, deaths, patients and ICU [admissions] continue to climb right here in Travis County.”
But Brown said he understands why it’s been so hard for residents.
“We’ve asked all of you to sacrifice a lot this year already, I know that. And right now we are asking you to cancel your New Year’s Eve celebrations as this is not the time to gather with people outside your home and with people who you don’t live within your home,” Brown said Tuesday.
Adler is encouraging Austinites to participate in the city’s virtual New Year’s Eve celebration.
With the order, residents are being asked to leave restaurants/bars on New Year’s Eve and head home — just not with people from outside of their households, Adler said.
While the order does not limit people from leaving their homes after 10:30 p.m., Austinites are urged not to.
Does it violate Gov. Abbott’s orders?
Mayor Adler says no.
“It does not violate the order, because it’s just an operational restraint,” Adler said.
But Attorney General Ken Paxton says yes.
In a Wednesday letter to both Adler and Brown, Paxton directs the two to rescind or modify the order — or, he says, they will face legal action from the state.
“We are open to conferring with you before 12:30 p.m. today [Wednesday],” Paxton wrote in the letter posted to Twitter at 12:24 p.m. and uploaded online at 12:09 p.m. “Otherwise, I, on behalf of the State of Texas, will take legal action against you.”
Travis County said it had received the letter and is reviewing it with the County Attorney’s office.