Limits placed on dine-in service over New Year's weekend, Austin-area health officials say
Wednesday update: Austin Mayor Steve Adler is answering questions about the city's three-day curfew on dine-in food and beverage services issues Tuesday. Watch live below:
7:25 p.m. update: Austin health officials late Tuesday announced plans to implement a three-day curfew on dine-in food and beverage service to discourage residents from gathering during New Year's weekend.
Austin Public Health officials said curfew hours will be between 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. starting Thursday night and ending Sunday morning.
"Venues serving food and drink may still operate between 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. using drive-thru, curbside pick-up, take-out, or delivery service," a written statement from Austin Public Health said. "This change applies to any venue serving food or drink from an onsite kitchen, food truck, or catering service.'
Those who break the curfew could receive a fine of $1,000, health officials said.
Gov. Greg Abbott, a frequent critic of Austin government policies, was quick to blast the move to limit service, tweeting: "This shutdown order by Austin isn't allowed. Period."
"My executive order stops cities like Austin from arbitrarily shutting down businesses," he wrote. "The city has a responsibility to enforce existing orders, not make new ones."
However, no businesses are being ordered to shut down. Health officials said venues can continue dine-in operations between 6 a.m. and 10:30 p.m.
Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, on Tuesday morning said he had planned to recommend a curfew after hospitals reported they were nearing capacity limits this week.
Escott said a curfew was necessary to help reduce the number of hospitalizations that could occur if residents ignored local guidelines and gathered at bars or other local venues to celebrate the new year.
"What we're facing Thursday, Friday, Saturday in particular is a risk we simply cannot take right now," Escott said.
"If we take individuals who were exposed during Christmas gatherings and put them in bars on New Year's Eve and pack them together for hours, the projection is going to be overwhelming and happen very quickly."
Earlier Tuesday, Escott said he was recommending that all middle and high schools once again transition to 100% virtual learning after their winter break as hospitalizations for the coronavirus continue to climb.
Last week, the Austin school board voted to give the Austin school district superintendent the authority to shutter schools for in-person learning after the winter break.
Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde has said the district, which enrolled roughly 80,000 students in the 2019-20 school year, could close schoolhouse doors and offer solely online instruction if Austin health officials determine further measures are needed to stymie the spread of the disease.
Such a decision could run afoul of direction from state authorities, who have insisted that districts keep schools open during the pandemic.
Earlier: The Austin area's top health chief on Tuesday recommended that all middle and high schools once again transition to 100% virtual learning after their winter break as hospitalizations for the coronavirus continue to climb.
Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, said he does not believe it is safe for high school and middle school students to return to in-person classes in early January.
Escott said he instead recommends high school and middle school students stay home and attend classes virtually for two weeks after the winter break.
In addition, Escott recommends that all students and staffers who traveled or gathered during the holidays to self-quarantine and then get tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, seven days after possible exposure.
"With the positivity data we're seeing and the impact on hospitalization admissions and our ICUs, it's time to scale back the risk," Escott said.
Projections by the University of Texas on Tuesday showed hospitals will reach maximum intensive care unit capacity by Jan. 6 if residents continue to be exposed to the coronavirus at the current rate.
Escott said the projections show each week the ICUs will see 100 more patients, with about 500 coronavirus ICU patients by the end of January.
By Tuesday night, Austin-Travis County health officials reported that 434 people with the coronavirus were hospitalized with 138 in ICUs and 72 on ventilators. As many as 68 people were newly admitted to the hospital Tuesday.
Hoping to change the dangerous trajectory for hospital capacity in Travis County, he also was recommending the immediate halt of all extracurricular activities.
"If you can't do something with a mask on and distanced, you shouldn't be doing it," Escott said.
Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White and St. David's HealthCare officials in a joint statement Tuesday said local hospitals currently have sufficient staffing and occupancy to care for both patients with COVID-19, as well as those with other medical conditions.
However, officials said that "similar to the weeks following Thanksgiving, we are beginning to see an increase of COVID-19 cases in our local communities and in our hospitals following the recent holiday gathering."
Is it your turn for a vaccination?
Austin-Travis County residents who are older than 65 or have underlying health conditions can now receive the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Escott.
As of Tuesday morning, Escott said about 85% of all local health care workers opted to accept the coronavirus vaccine after shipments arrived locally over the past few weeks.
And now with most health care workers and first responders gaining access to the vaccine, state leaders have instructed local officials to begin vaccinating the general public.
Escott said in addition to those older than 65, those between the ages of 16 and 65 with underlying health conditions that put them at risk of severe disease and death can also be vaccinated.
He said while the number of vaccine doses are still limited, those who qualify can receive vaccinations as they become available.
Austin Public Health on Tuesday said more than 300 pharmacies, doctors’ offices, hospital groups and other providers signed up to provide COVID-19 vaccines in Austin-Travis County.
Heath officials on Tuesday recommended residents contact their primary care doctors to see if they plan to be a vaccine provider.
Each provider will likely have their own sign-up system for those wanting to get vaccinated, health officials said.
Austin-Travis County officials on Tuesday reported 697 new cases of COVID-19 and 4,687 active cases in the region. Two more deaths also were reported, pushing the county's pandemic death toll to 544.
“This is our path out of this COVID-19 pandemic,” Escott said. "We will continue those efforts to get folks vaccinated as soon as we can."