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Photo by Michael Minasi/KUT. UT Austin students wait in line to be tested for COVID-19 at DKR Stadium before the Sept. 12 football game against UT-El Paso.

Austin Public Health official says governor relaxed capacity rules too soon

Monday, September 21, 2020 by Jerry Quijano, KUT

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Austin Public Health’s interim health authority says he would have rather waited a few more weeks before easing capacity restrictions for businesses in the area.

On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that many businesses, including restaurants, gyms and libraries, may open at 75 percent capacity beginning Monday. Dr. Mark Escott says Austin Public Health wanted to wait until the city was at stage 2 of its risk-based guidelines before easing restrictions.

“That’s particularly concerning because over the past two weeks we’ve seen an increase in the number of new cases,” Escott said. “On September 3, we had an average of 69 new cases in Travis County. That’s increased 83 percent in the two weeks since then.”

Stephanie Hayden, director of Austin Public Health, stressed that there are still local orders in place despite the governor’s updates. She also urged people to continue avoiding gatherings.

Escott said there are about four dozen cases in area secondary schools and hundreds of cases in colleges. Despite that, he said there is currently no evidence any of these cases were transmitted in a classroom.

“(Transmission) is happening in social gatherings, they’re happening in extracurricular activities. We’ve seen clusters in the area related to football, strength and conditioning, cheerleading, band,” Escott said. “We know that these activities are likely to present situations where masking and social distancing is not possible or practical.”

Austin Public Health is asking that children and adults who are active in these kinds of programs wear masks and social distance in their homes to protect other family members.

The highest positivity rate in the area is currently in the 10-19 and 20-29 age ranges. College students are testing at a 10 percent positivity rate and high school students are testing at 14 percent – almost triple the rate of the community as a whole.

“So it’s important for those individuals, our young people, to make sure they’re acting in a protective way,” Escott said.

Austin Public Health deployed some teams at last Saturday’s UT Austin football game to monitor Covid-19 protocols. Escott said masking and social distancing started strong at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium, but began to wane as the game went on.

“So our feedback to the University of Texas is, if you’re going to continue to have people in the stands, you’ve got to continue the enforcement throughout the game to ensure that those activities can be done safely.”

Escott did applaud the governor’s decision to keep bars closed for the time being. He said he understands some people don’t think it’s a fair decision, but that bars have an “unfortunate” setup for Covid-19.

“It’s the way the businesses are designed, where people are gathering face-to-face for an extended period of time,” he said. “I echo the governor’s sentiment that bars have to find a new way to operate in order to make them safer.”

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

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