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Travis County Commissioners Court extends emergency disaster declaration

Wednesday, March 11, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Following the local disaster declaration last Friday, the Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously extended the county’s disaster declaration in light of ongoing concerns about public health risks associated with COVID-19. This state of emergency will continue indefinitely or until the Commissioners Court rescinds it. The declaration announced March 6 is valid only for a week.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told reporters that going forward, mass gatherings, which are defined as events with greater than 2,500 people, will be evaluated and granted permits on a case-by-case basis. Public health officials are seeking to stave off person-to-person transmission by limiting large-scale events and festivals.

Although South by Southwest has been canceled and MotoGP has been postponed, the Commissioners Court gave the green light Tuesday to Rodeo Austin and the Luck Reunion festival. Both events, which begin next week, were given conditional permits that are contingent on organizers implementing a stringent health mitigation plan designed by Travis County and city of Austin health officials.

Austin Public Health is working in tandem with the Travis County Fire Marshal’s Office and Travis County Health and Human Services to issue the conditional permits to festivals.

Eckhardt said canceling all events and halting the festival economy in its tracks will cause an “economic epidemic.”

“We are both trying to manage the health emergency as well as the economic emergency,” she said. The rodeo, she explained, does not present the same risks as an international festival like South by Southwest as it draws its crowd primarily from the state of Texas.

Matt Bizer, the executive producer of the Luck Reunion festival, said adapting to the health and safety measures required to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is new territory for event organizers. “All of the questions right now are being answered in real time,” he said. He and Rob Golding, the chief executive officer of Rodeo Austin, both agreed that while public health and safety is a top priority, canceling large-scale events has far-reaching economic consequences.

As of March 10, there were 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas. All of the cases are travel-related and none are in Travis County, according to Dr. Mark Escott, Austin Public Health interim medical director.

As person-to-person transmission has not been identified as the cause of COVID-19 in Texas, Eckhardt urged Travis County residents to continue to go out and attend events. “If you’re healthy and you want to go out and enjoy healthy activities with others … please do so,” she said.

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