AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a joint special meeting hosted by the City of Austin and Travis County, Mayor Steve Adler asked residents to start masking up again in response to a spike in cases, breakthrough cases and hospitalizations in Travis County.
The mayor said even though government municipalities can’t require masks because of an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott, he hopes businesses and residents will opt to mask up again, vaccinated or not, to prevent the area from going into a more restrictive Stage 4.
Austin is currently in Stage 3 of Austin Public Health’s COVID-19 risk-based chart, in which unvaccinated people are encouraged to wear a mask for all activities (indoor and outdoor gatherings, travel and dining/shopping), while those who are vaccinated should only wear them for travel. The guidelines for Stage 4 say those who are vaccinated should wear masks for those activities, and suggests those who are not vaccinated stay home unless the activity is “essential.”
Adler also addressed concerns about students returning to school in the fall: “We don’t want to get involved in a legal issue with the Governor, and want to try to avoid that if we can, but if there was a way right now to order that all students have to wear masks in school, we would be doing it.”
He, along with Austin Public Health officials and other local leaders are urging all parents to make their kids wear masks to school when classes start in the fall. Additionally, local leaders will also be encouraging teachers and other adults in school buildings to mask up, as well.
Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in May that bans school districts and other “governmental entities in Texas,” from requiring or mandating masks.
Abbott said that counties, cities, public health authorities or government officials can’t require people wear masks.
Adler elaborated in an interview with KXAN following the meeting, saying, “We want people to do this voluntarily. We want people to do this because it’s the right thing to do.”
Adler says many people who are vaccinated don’t realize they could still potentially be transmitting the virus to those who aren’t.
“I know everybody is tired. People who’ve taken the vaccine, say, ‘Hey, I’ve already done everything that I’m supposed to do. I’ve done everything right.’ But we have tens of thousands of kids in our city under 12 who can’t take the vaccination right now,” Adler said. “And our infectivity level in the community is so high, and getting higher, that those children are in danger.”
The mayor is also asking businesses to play a big role in curbing the uptick in cases by allowing employees who haven’t yet been vaccinated time off to get vaccinated — or to coordinate with Austin Public Health to host a vaccine event at the workplace.
Additionally, Adler said, “If you’re a business that has customers coming indoors, please require your customers to wear a mask just like we did before. Businesses clearly can do that under the law.”
Adler told KXAN that as of Monday, of the 70 to 80 people in local ICUs, all but one had not gotten a vaccine.
“People need to understand just how rapidly the numbers are rising in our hospitals and in our intensive care units,” he said. “They’re rising so rapidly that we could be a week to 10 days away from real significant challenges.”
Adler says the increase in COVID-19 admissions has put such a strain on hospital resources that all of the local hospitals have requested additional resources from the state. However, he says the state is facing similar staffing issues, so it’s not clear whether it will be able to help hospitals locally.
KXAN asked Governor Abbott’s office for comment following the mayor and other local leaders’ comments Tuesday.
The governor’s press secretary said in a statement:
“Vaccines are the most effective defense against contracting COVID and becoming seriously ill, and we continue to urge all eligible Texans to get the vaccine. Since vaccines first became available in December 2020, Governor Abbott has worked closely with DSHS and TDEM to increase the access and ease for all Texans who want a COVID vaccine to get one…. The COVID vaccine will always remain voluntary and never forced in Texas.”