The Austin Chronicle

COVID-19: Austin, Travis County Should Prepare to Shelter in Place

By Mike Clark-Madison, March 23, 2020, 4:45pm, Newsdesk

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt are expected on Tuesday to issue shelter-in-place orders for the city and county - increasing restrictions on movement and on non-essential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ease its burden on health care providers.

The move follows similar declarations in Dallas and Waco and anticipated ones in San Antonio and Houston, as Texas' major cities take the lead on the public health response to the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. At the state level, Gov. Greg Abbott has been hesitant to order similar measures for all of Texas - as his counterparts have done in California, New York, Illinois, and Louisiana - noting that most of the state's 254 counties have no reported COVID-19 cases. At his town-hall teleconference last Thursday, March 19, Abbott said he would "applaud" stricter measures taken by local governments.

Adler told the Chronicle that the city and county are consulting orders issued by mayors and governors across the country and determining the exact mix of measures most appropriate to Austin, which will include both calls to stay at home and steps to maximize safety for workers at those businesses that do remain open. He indicated the exact timing and duration of the order would also depend on feedback from health care professionals working to manage the COVID-19 outbreak.

In a conference call with reporters Monday evening, Eckhardt said Austin, Travis County, Williamson County, and other cities and counties around the state will all be issuing similar orders Tuesday, expected to take effect at midnight. "There will be some differences from county to county and city to city, but we're all working from the same universe of examples" from elsewhere, she said. The orders will outline which essential individual activities, government functions, critical infrastructure, and business functions will be exempt from the restrictions, and Eckhardt "strongly encourage(s) people not to panic. They won't keep people from going to the grocery story or picking up what they need to work from home." Instead, the orders, which Eckhardt described as focusing on activities rather than industries or commercial sectors, offer a "reasoned approach to reduce circulation throughout the community for a period of time that will make a significant difference."

More important that the scope of restrictions is their urgency - the epidemiological experts advising Adler, Eckhardt and their counterparts have said "that instituting measures right away will have a significant effect, and that they'll become less effective over time." Eckhardt said that strict measures for the next two to three weeks are likely, and that once Central Texans see not just the orders but more details about COVID-19's progression in the community, they will want to comply: "We're predominantly relying on the good sense and everyday heroism of Travis County residents" to keep the community safe.

This is a developing story; check back for more updates.

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