Austin releases new safety plans for holding indoor, outdoor events again during COVID-19 pandemic

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin is sharing new guidance that will serve as a “starting point” for its own departments and other businesses to begin safely holding events again during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Austin Center for Events launched a new website Friday, which provides a comprehensive list of information about COVID-19 health and safety recommendations for indoor venues as well as new outdoor special event permit requirements.

“Austin Public Health reviewed key indicators, which have been moving in the right direction,” Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County interim health authority, said. “We actually have a glimpse of normalcy as a reward of the hard work our community has done to protect each other with masking and hygiene practices but to make this a reality, we have to stay vigilant in the protection of ourselves and our community. If we see a surge in cases and hospitalizations, we have the flexibility to reconsider the scale of the event, modify the mitigation strategies or cancel if needed.”

One notable change will require special event applicants to submit a COVID-19 health and safety plan as part of their application through a new online form. The city’s website states it recommends submitting that new form at least 30 days prior to Tier 1 and Tier 2 events and 60 days ahead of Tier 3 and Tier 4 events.

“We actually have a glimpse of normalcy as a reward of the hard work our community has done to protect each other with masking and hygiene practices but to make this a reality, we have to stay vigilant in the protection of ourselves and our community.”

Dr. Mark escott, AUSTIN-TRAVIS COUNTY interim health authority

Starting April 1, the city announced the Austin Central Library will start hosting private events and facility rentals, though that will happen on a limited basis and at reduced capacity. All events will have to receive approval from local health authorities and follow the COVID-19 safety guidelines outlined by Austin-Travis County.

APH also gave the Austin Convention Center Department permission to operate at 25% capacity, and it expects that to rise as vaccinations increase.

It’s unclear when the Austin Parks and Recreation Department will reopen places like picnic areas, facilities or special events. Local public health experts will keep working with the department to iron out those reopening plans based on the conditions, according to the city.

In a statement Friday, City Manager Spencer Cronk said, “We understand the pandemic has caused incredible economic impacts on venues and special events and affected consumer confidence. Releasing these guidelines now indicates cautious optimism for events based on the current COVID-19 health conditions.”

Industry leaders express concerns

The city says it gathered input from more than 40 Austin event planners, venues and others industry leaders in writing these guidelines.

But a couple of industry leaders we spoke with say the additional plans may come at a cost, especially for events and venues with smaller budgets.

“There are a lot of things in that document that to me, translate to a lot of money small businesses are going to have to spend,” said Jeannette Gregor of the Amplified Sound Coalition, which advocates for event workers, including musicians.

While Gregor said she appreciates city grant funding through the SAVES program to help venues recover, she suggested Austin supply PPE or even waive the cost of the health permit requirement.

“On the one hand, I’m glad they recognized the need,” she said. “On the other hand, I think the city can do a little bit more.”

During Friday morning’s press conference with top health officials, we asked APH’s Interim Medical Director about the financial burden this may add. He said public health has to be considered, adding with proms and graduations coming this spring, there’s still a risk of significant spread.

“If we relax too much, we’re looking at a surge that begins in April, continues into May and peaks in June,” said Escott.

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