Entering 2021 in a “State of Emergency”

Bars operating as restaurants are officials’ top concern

Ahead of the New Year’s Eve holiday, Austin Public Health officials have expressed extreme concern over bars as hot spots for COVID-19 transmission. (Photo by John Anderson)

Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott spelled out Austin's start to the new year in no uncertain terms: "It appears we are going to enter 2021 in a state of emergency," said Escott at a Dec. 28 press conference. "In the next several weeks, we may run out of hospital beds, we may run out of ICU beds, and it could happen a lot sooner than that – as early as a week to two weeks from now."

The dire warning is one of many from local health officials amidst what officials have deemed an ongoing worsening condition of COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County since Novem­ber. Austin Public Health announced on Dec. 23 that the city and county had moved into Stage 5 – the highest level of Austin-Travis County's COVID-19 Risk-Based Guidelines – for the first time since adopting the guidelines in May. Under Stage 5, local officials urge all residents regardless of their risk level to avoid non-household gatherings, dining, and shopping, as well as recommending that local businesses transition to delivery and curbside services.

The Dec. 23 decision arrived shortly after Austin's seven-day moving average for COVID-19 hospitalizations hit the qualifying threshold for Stage 5 restrictions of 50 hospitalizations – a metric that was revised down just prior to Thanksgiving. Local health officials transitioned to Stage 5 recommendations out of concern for the possible impact of the Christmas and New Year's holidays on the disease following a surge in local cases and hospitalizations due to Thanksgiving gatherings.

As of Dec. 28, there are only 35 ICU beds available across the 11-county Central Texas region.

Now, as Austin-Travis Coun­ty approaches 2021 with a seven-day moving average of 64 hospitalizations as of Dec. 28, Escott said, "Our projections forward into the new year continue to look worse and worse, day after day." Since the beginning of the month, local hospital admissions on average are up 106%, said Escott, and the number of current hospitalizations – 422 as of Dec. 28 – is a 67% increase since Dec. 1. In the past week alone, he said, there's been a 62% increase in ICU utilization for COVID patients. The last time our seven-day moving average for hospitalizations exceeded 60 was at the end of June, a week before a peak in the July surge. As of Dec. 28, there are only 35 ICU beds available for COVID-19 patients across the 11-county Central Texas region, which includes Travis County.

APH's main concern heading into New Year's Eve is bars operating as restaurants. Although Travis County has yet to reopen bars, a loophole made possible by a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Com­mission emergency rule has allowed some bars to reopen as restaurants under food and beverage certificates if they serve food. Escott said enforcing mask-wearing and capacity limits at such establishments has been the focus of APH's enforcement efforts these previous weeks and will continue.

"We need them to close," said Escott. "We need them to understand that they are putting public health at risk by being open."

At a Travis County Commissioners Court meeting just before Christmas, Escott released a list of 25 local bars that have received at least one citation from the fire marshal following multiple formal warnings for breaking COVID restrictions. Twelve of them are on East Sixth, with Soho Lounge at the corner of Sixth and San Jacinto receiving the most citations – four on four separate dates between Oct. 24 and Dec. 13. Another four bars issued citations – Concrete Cowboy, Play, Wyld, and Unbar­lievable – are on West Sixth. (In June, the TABC also temporarily suspended Soho Lounge's and Unbarlieveable's liquor permits for violating state COVID guidelines.)

Officials have said previously that a curfew could be considered should Austin enter Stage 5. For now, restaurants are encouraged – but not mandated – to close indoor dining spaces and limit outdoor dining capacity to 50%, said Travis County Judge Andy Brown in the Dec. 23 press conference. Officials are also recommending that indoor retail capacity be limited to 50% and all dining and retail services be shut down between 10:30pm-6am. Should a surge continue despite these recommendations, officials might then consider more significant measures.*

However, under Gov. Greg Abbott's GA-32 executive order issued in October, local officials may only mandate reduced capacity if COVID patients exceed 15% of the Trauma Service Area's hospital capacity for seven days. Travis County is one of 11 counties that make up TSA-O. According to data tracked by the Texas Department of State Health Services, COVID-19 patients account for 10.9% of TSA-O's hospital capacity as of Dec. 28 – with Dec. 27 being the first date since early August that the metric exceeded 10%. Since Dec. 21, COVID-19 patients have exceeded 15% of Texas' statewide hospital capacity.

Editor's note: City officials announced Tuesday evening a 10:30pm curfew for dine-in food and beverage establishments that begins Thursday and extends through Sunday morning. On Twitter, Gov. Greg Abbott disputed Austin officials' authority to issue these orders. Read story.

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