AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the Austin area continues to see an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and strain on hospital systems, city and county officials have decided to implement a curfew for in-person food and beverage operations from Thursday night through Sunday in hopes of reversing the trend and stopping New Year’s gatherings.
New orders from the City of Austin and Travis County will place a curfew on 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 carry on during the curfew’s hours.
The curfew 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 urging the public not to go out for New Year’s celebrations.
Tuesday night, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he had been meeting throughout the day with Travis County Judge Andy Brown and Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott about how to address the region’s worsening COVID-19 numbers.
Adler explained he and the other local leaders have been working with lawyers to determine the details of what measures to put in place. While Adler did not reveal all the details on his nightly “Got a Minute” Livestream, he did say the measures will impact restaurants and bars, but will not impact takeout and carryout. He expects the measures will include asking people to stay at home, especially after 10:30 p.m. at night.
Joining other concerned cities
After actions taken this fall by El Paso and San Antonio to curb the spread of the virus, Austin becomes the third Texas city to impose a curfew specifically to curb COVID-19 spread.
El Paso County officials implemented curfews in October, November and during Christmas, with another curfew for New Year’s from Dec. 30 to Jan. 4 from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
San Antonio and Bexar County leaders issued partial curfews over the Thanksgiving holiday from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. San Antonio did not have a curfew over the Christmas holidays.
This is the first time during the pandemic that Austin and Travis County have imposed a curfew.
Last week in Houston, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo tweeted while the county would not be issuing a curfew at that moment, “we’re not ruling it out as a last resort if the situation gets worse.” Travis County Judge Andy Brown retweeted her message.
‘We are running out of time’
Escott said Monday, “If we continue to see an upward trend, then we are going to have discussions about the possibility of a curfew toward the end of this week, to help mitigate that risk.”
Since he made that comment, hospitalizations in the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area have continued to rise.
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 Austin MSA 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.
On Tuesday, during a Facebook Live briefing with Travis County Judge Andy Brown, 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.
“My expectation is that this number will climb significantly this week and we will resume this upward trajectory that we saw leading up to Christmas,” he said.
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, Escott explained, are not a crystal ball showing what will happen but rather a portrayal of what is most likely to happen if COVID-19 transmission continues the way it is today.
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 accidents 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 Tuesday. “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.”
“This is massive and unsustainable growth,” Escott said of the projected increase, explaining these numbers are why he said the Austin area may enter the new year in a “state of emergency.”
“Looking at these projections, if you can’t do something with a mask on and distanced, you shouldn’t be doing it,” he emphasized.
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
On Monday, Escott said that bars operating as restaurants on New Year’s Eve are his number one concern ahead of the holiday in terms of escalating COVID-19 risk. “We need them to close,” he said. “They’re putting public health at risk.”
On Tuesday, Escott said of the public health stakes as New Year’s approaches “it’s important our community understands: this is a lockdown situation, these are the kind of numbers we would see when we would want to recommend a lockdown.”
“We don’t have to order that,” Escott continued, “People can choose to lock themselves down, to stay home, to make those decisions that are gonna decrease transmission, and that’s what we need people to do.”
Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden also asked the public on Monday to “take the lowest possible risk” on New Year’s Eve by staying home and only doing things with those they live with.
“What is going to be your New Year’s resolutions?” she said. “Are you going to be safe? Are you going to make good decisions? Those are things we can easily check off by saying, ‘I’m going to stay at home. I want to be safe, and I’m going to think about others, as well, so that I don’t bring COVID-19 into my home.’”
“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.”
Brown noted that the region’s COVID-19 positivity rate is creeping up, particularly for the Latinx and African American residents of the Austin area.
“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 added.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler posted on Twitter Tuesday morning, encouraging Austinites to participate in the city’s virtual New Year’s eve celebration.