In a major setback for the local restaurant industry and public health at large, Austin Public Health (APH) is recommending that everyone — vaccinated, unvaccinated, and partially vaccinated — wear masks while they are indoors. APH is also urging eligible unvaccinated people to get their vaccines as soon as possible, amid rapidly increasing COVID-19 cases in the Austin area due to the highly transmissible delta variant.
For restaurants and bars, this means that Austin and Travis County customers are urged to continue to keep their masks on when not seated for drinking and dining purposes, whether they are indoors or outdoors. Customers should also keep their masks on when picking up takeout and delivery orders. Service industry workers should also keep their masks on while working.
The new recommendations were announced as Austin and Travis County are on the verge of sliding back into Stage 4 of the region’s risk-based guidelines (statistically the area should have reached that benchmark already), which determine how masks should be used based on COVID-related data. Currently, there’s a seven-day moving average of 125 new cases with 31 new hospital admissions; there are 1,061 active cases in the county, with a total of 196 hospitalizations; and the county’s positivity rate is 9.6 percent, which increased by three percent from last week; Texas-wide it’s 11.52 percent. On July 20, APH confirmed four cases of the delta variant in the Travis County area. (The city moved up into Stage 3 in mid-July.)
“We know the delta variant is here and is running rampant in our community,” says Dr. Desmar Walkes, the new Austin-Travis County Health Authority, in a statement. “It will continue to cause a surge in cases and hospitalizations if we don’t come together to stop it. Do your part — wear a mask indoors and get vaccinated if you haven’t already.”
Of the Travis County population, 62.16 percent of eligible people have been fully vaccinated, with 71.20 percent partially vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Children under the age of 12 are still not approved to get the vaccine, though a vaccine for kids 5 and up is expected to be ready by midwinter. Of the eligible population, only 51.6 percent of Texans are fully vaccinated.
It is mostly unvaccinated individuals who are getting COVID-19 at this point, those people are now highly susceptible to the contagious virus, which could lead to hospitalization, long-term health issues, and death.This doesn’t mean that vaccinated people aren’t susceptible to catching the virus — they are — but these so-called “breakthrough” cases tend to be not as severe. That’s another reason to get a vaccine.
If and when the city does enter Stage 4, the guidelines ask that vaccinated people don masks for indoor and outdoor events, as well as stay masked while dining out at restaurants; people are allowed to take their masks while seated for actual eating and drinking purposes under the Stage 4 guidance. Unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people are discouraged from visiting restaurants, shops, and travel unless necessary, and should not participate in any indoor and outdoor events.
Austin has tried to implement its own stricter rules twice during the pandemic thus far and had to deal with Texas. First, the state sued the city three times over New Year’s Eve restrictions, and the case was eventually dismissed in the spring. Then, Austin continued to require masks and social distancing after Abbott lifted all COVID restrictions in March, to which Texas Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton filed a suit that was dismissed.
These precedents will make it nearly impossible for the city and county to impose rigid mandates to curtail the spread of the delta variant.