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Austin leaders encourage peer pressure to get folks to wear face masks and avoid crowding spaces

Friday, May 29, 2020 by Andrew Weber, KUT

Austin and Travis County officials are urging people to wear face coverings and to avoid large gatherings as the city and the state reopen for business.

If that refrain sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve heard the song and it bears repeating, officials say, lest Austin see a surge in hospitalizations for Covid-19 that could cripple the region’s health care infrastructure.

At a media availability Thursday, Austin Public Health’s interim medical director, Dr. Mark Escott, said the five-county region’s goal is to keep the daily average of Covid-related hospital admissions below 20. That average drives Austin-Travis County’s five-phased approach to reopening.

The key to that, Escott said, is the well-worn advice officials have been giving for months: Wear a mask, wash your hands and avoid large crowds.

“We’ve been talking for quite some time about the need to continue the social distancing, to continue that personal hygiene and to continue masking in public, so that we can balance the public health and the economy in a way that can grow both,” he said.

The Austin area is currently in stage 3 of that five-tiered system, which puts the daily hospital admission average between 5 and 19.

If hospitalizations surge, authorities could tighten commercial and social restrictions.

UT Austin epidemiologist Lauren Ancel Myers helped APH develop the metric to determine when cases within the five-county area could overwhelm hospitals. The model uses a seven-day average of how many people are admitted for Covid-19 to determine when to tighten or loosen restrictions.

Of course, enforcement is reliant on so-called voluntary compliance. The city and the county can’t close businesses or penalize people who don’t social distance; Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders supersede local rules.

Addressing a handful of reports of crowded bars over Memorial Day weekend, Mayor Steve Adler said he hoped that was a one-off and that people would avoid this behavior for the greater good.

“We can’t enforce our way to this. There aren’t enough sheriff’s deputies or police officers,” he said. “This has got to be something that collectively we want to do ourselves, and our individual actions then accumulate into community action.”

Both Adler and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said the city and county will lean on code and permit enforcement to crack down on overcrowded events. Still, Eckhardt admitted, the governor’s orders have largely “stripped away our enforcement mechanisms.”

However, she said the county still maintains the ability to shut down overcrowded parks, as it did over the weekend at a handful of spots.

Eckhardt, Adler and Escott all urged Austinites to avoid crowds in general and suggested residents boycott businesses that aren’t following state, city and county guidelines.

“If there are businesses that do not allow the wearing of masks in their business, you shouldn’t go there,” Escott said. “That is completely irresponsible.”

Eckhardt urged people to say, “This is not appropriate” to those businesses and to tell others to do the same.

“Peer pressure is tremendous,” she added.

Earlier this week, Escott underscored the possibility of an increase in new Covid-19 cases stemming from the reopening of restaurants and bars. Health officials fear that new crop of cases could come as soon as next week, given the incubation period of the new coronavirus; that could lead to an increase in hospitalizations.

With protests and calls to reopen the economy falling along political lines, Adler urged Austinites to heed the advice of officials and continue following along with that refrain.

“The numbers don’t lie,” he said, referring to the 20-admissions-per-day guideline. “The numbers are what they are.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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