AUSTIN (KXAN) — With a spike in new hospitalizations and Christmas on the way, Austin Public Health moved the area Wednesday to Stage 5 of its COVID-19 risk-based guidelines.

Health officials made the announcement during a press conference with Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown after 70 new COVID-19 hospitalizations were reported Tuesday, bumping the seven-day rolling average to 54, above the revised threshold of 50.

“Due to an ongoing worsening condition, and the uncontrolled, widespread community transmission of COVID-19, we will be elevating the community risk level to Stage 5,” Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County interim health authority, said.

Escott said while the hospital system in Austin is stable, and there are currently enough staff and beds, one of the main reasons for the move is to keep hospitals from getting to surge levels.

“When you see smoke, are you fully alarmed and call the fire department, or do you wait until the flames roll down the hallway?” he asked. “What we’ve learned over and over again… if you wait to pull the alarm until the hospitals are full, that surge will continue until the hospitals, and the morgues, are overwhelmed.”

“We simply cannot afford that in Travis County. The time to act is now,” he said.

This is the first time the area has gone to Stage 5.

Health officials reviewed previous staging levels and adjusted them in November due to the amount of healthcare workers available in the area. Surges in El Paso, Lubbock, Fort Worth and other Texas cities necessitated the dispatch of workers to help treat patients with the disease there, leaving the Austin area in particular with less workers to staff intensive care units.

Previously, Stage 5 wasn’t until the area hit at least an average of 70 new hospitalizations. That happened in July, but the average dropped sharply after its peak of 75 on July 8, so health officials opted not to move to Stage 5 at that time.

What Stage 5 means to the community

What comes with the move are suggestions and recommendations from APH similar to what the area saw in March at the start of the first surge. They are asking everyone not to gather with anyone outside their household, regardless if they are at high risk for severe complications or not. They are also asking everyone to limit trips outside homes to just essential ones, like going to the grocery store or going to work as examples.

Austin Public Health also suggests businesses go to a contactless-only payment system with curbside and delivery options, but businesses likely won’t face shut downs. Gov. Greg Abbott vowed not to shut down any businesses in Texas while he spoke at a press conference discussing COVID-19 vaccine distribution Dec. 17.

Brown urged businesses to follow the recommendations set forth by health officials, which are:

  • Restaurants to limit occupancy and encourage curbside and delivery methods, which includes closing indoor dining spaces and limiting outdoor dining spaces to 50% capacity
  • Ending all dine-in and retail services between 10:30 p.m. – 5 a.m.
  • Retail businesses to limit indoor occupancy to 50%

“Changes like these can do a lot to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Brown said. “If we cannot successfully slow the surge, we have to consider all options to keep our community safe, and that could include requiring actions instead of urging them.”

Ashley Fric, who owns Colleen’s Kitchen in Mueller, learned of the stricter recommendations early Wednesday afternoon.

“We are scrambling with our team to find what the best operational method for our team to keep our staff and guests safe is,” she said.

Fric tells KXAN she’s weighing public health concerns and the needs of of her employees when deciding how to shift operations.

“Especially in a time like Christmas, it’s important to keep fellow Austinites employed doing the jobs that they’re skilled for,” she said.

The City of Austin and Travis County extended their “Stay Home, Mask and Otherwise Be Safe” orders Dec. 16 through the middle of February, and APH extended its rules until the middle of April.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler knows “ultimately, we can’t enforce our way into compliance.”

“This is up to us as a community,” Adler said. “This is something the community has to do by its collective action.”

As far as a “curfew” goes, one hasn’t been implemented, and it won’t be unless conditions worsen. Brown said he hopes it doesn’t get point.

“These are recommendations,” Brown said. “What we’re asking is the community to take these additional steps on a voluntary basis.”

The need for a field hospital like the one set up at the Austin Convention Center in July could be just weeks away if conditions worsen, Escott said. He said projections from the University of Texas at Austin will be a big part of officials’ decision to actually put the field hospital to use.

“I’m quite certain the models will be more pessimistic in terms of an outlook,” Escott said of the projections. “There may be some additional models that come out in the next few days that give us a better indication of the magnitude of surge we may experience over the next three weeks.”

Capacity for Travis County parks is also lowered, the department said.

What Stage 5 means for schools

Like he said in previous briefings, Escott recommended to school district superintendents that they suspend extracurricular activities, because that’s where the data says COVID-19 is spreading. He realizes high school football playoffs are going on, so at the very least, he’s asking districts to “decrease the risk as much as possible, as quickly as possible, so we can decrease transmission and flatten the curve.”

Escott said they haven’t yet made a recommendation to move to virtual classes after winter break, but if things get worse, he and health officials won’t hesitate to make it.

“If things continue in an aggressive, upward fashion in cases and hospitalizations, then it’s likely we’d make the recommendation that schools go virtual,” he said. “That may not be a uniform request across all schools. We will try to preserve our elementary in-person education as much as we can.”

Austin Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde said Tuesday “if health conditions changed” the district would consider going 100% remote or stayed closed for another week following winter break. Nothing has been decided on as of Wednesday, but that decision could come soon.

Pflugerville ISD said on Wednesday it’s currently still planning to resume in-person classes on Jan. 6, but sub-varsity athletics are postponed. Varsity athletics will continue without fans.

Changing holiday traditions

All officials who spoke during the briefing stressed that people should try to find new holiday traditions or simply adjust ones they already have in order to meet Stage 5 guidelines.

It’s no doubt it’ll be difficult, they all agree, but maybe a new activity will stick with families for generations to come.

APH Director Stephanie Hayden said based on the rise in COVID-19 cases following Thanksgiving, people gathered against recommendations. While she said she isn’t “cancelling” the holidays, she said hopefully moving to Stage 5 now will keep people from gathering not just for Christmas, but for New Year’s Eve as well.

“We’ve got to get out of the mindset of saying, you know, I’ve got to live for right now, at this time” she said. “My hope is, that a year from now, if you choose and things are better, and you want to go to the club… I typically don’t club, but I might be so excited, I might go with you next year, but my hope is to just think about right now. Do what you can do now, and don’t go to those celebrations.”