As Bars Go Wild, Austin Prepares for Inevitable Second Wave
Miss the coronavirus? It'll be back!
Austinites had been doing a great job of keeping our distance and covering our faces. As sadly expected, the masks came off this past weekend as bars and clubs reopened and other businesses relaxed their capacity restrictions, part of Gov. Greg Abbott's push to "Open Texas" and try to outrun the novel coronavirus. As we predicted last week, the consequences appear to be minimal for businesses that simply ignored the public health protocols that Abbott is pretending remain in place, and that the city's own still-in-effect control orders are supposed to require.
While the city's Public Assembly Code Enforcement (PACE) teams have received plenty of complaints, "as we're starting to see increases in people being in public, we want to be educational and provide information regarding safety," said Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden at a Wednesday press conference. Those hoping to see Sixth Street bar kingpin Bob Woody – whose Buford's went full petri dish over the weekend, to much social media derision – led away in handcuffs will have to wait for another time.
That's not to say APH is blasé about the foolishness in the streets and the corollary specter of COVID-19 catastrophe this summer. "We're all concerned about some of the increased risk-taking that we're seeing," said Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott. "The message is getting confused ... in an election year, and the public is being told [they] have to choose public health or the economy ... and that's simply not true. ... If we don't act responsibly, we risk failing at both things."
The city and county plan to announce today (Thursday, May 28) how the expected increases in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths (currently projected to spike in mid- to late June) will serve as triggers for a return to more severe sheltering in place to avert a health care system collapse. As the Chronicle went to press Wednesday, hospitalizations – the most robust and noise-free metric – stood at 93 for the five-county metro area; the peak, on May 15, was 98. Latinx patients account for 76% of that total, a share that's been steadily increasing and causing growing equity concerns.
Elective medical procedures have resumed, and there is still room in area hospitals to manage a COVID-19 spike for now. (There is also room for more testing; APH has enough capacity to test 1,750 people per day on its own, but is only seeing 200-300, despite extensive outreach efforts.) Escott acknowledged that keeping things under control is "a difficult balance because of executive orders from the state. But we're confident that if we see a surge in hospitalizations, the state will agree that it's necessary to dial back. ... This is often painted as a battle between state and local [government], when really there's a balance there." Since different parts of Texas will see COVID-19 resurgence at different times, "local control continues to be really important" in managing the pandemic.