Austin Public Health experts encouraged people not to gather in large groups and warned that criminal charges will be taken against hosts of large gatherings at a media Q&A Friday morning.
Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday at a news conference that most Texas businesses will be able to increase their capacity to 75% as soon as Monday. Dr. Mark Escott, Austin Public Health’s interim medical director and health authority, said it would be better to wait until the positivity rate is lower to open restaurants at 75% capacity.
“Over the past two weeks we've seen an increase and a number of new cases,” Escott said. “College students have a positivity (rate) of about 10%. We'd like to see our positivity rate less than 3% before we were to make that recommendation to 75% (capacity).”
Escott said that off-campus gatherings and extracurricular activities at universities are contributing to the spread of COVID-19 more than in-person classes. On Sept. 10, the University reported three off-campus clusters of COVID-19 totaling to about 100 cases.
“If there's an issue off campus, the city of Austin will handle it,” Escott said. “We rely on people reporting to 311 to notify us of parties. People have to remember that these are our lawful orders. I would certainly support our district attorney in pursuing criminal charges against an entity that holds a party that leads to transmission of disease.”
On Saturday, dozens of students gathered at the Texas Rho fraternity house ahead of the football game with UT-El Paso. Texas Rho received two citations from the Austin Fire Marshal after someone called 311 to report the party.
Escott said ideally, the University would have tested everyone going to the football game Saturday, but that may be a possibility in the future with new technology and testing capabilities. Before the Saturday’s football game, the University only required students with the Big Ticket to be tested.
“We've engaged the fraternities and sororities ... to ensure that the messaging is appropriate, that the testing is available,” Escott said. “We had some teams from APH at the game, and what they observed is that as the game progressed, the masks came off and people started gathering closer to the field.”
Stephanie Hayden, Austin Public Health director, said APH is pleased about Abbott’s decision to keep a mask mandate in place and has teams making rounds around the city to ensure businesses are adhering to local guidelines.
“Our goal is that we would like the positivity rate to come down,” Hayden said. “We'd like to go to Stage 2.”
Escott said Austin is currently in Stage 3, and the reopening of schools is contributing to the risk of additional spread. Stage 3 advises against gatherings of more than 10 people, while Stage 2 recommends avoiding gatherings larger than 25 people.
“I'm concerned when we had an 83% increase in cases over a two-week period (since Sept. 3),” Escott said.
“It’s important for our young people to act in a protective way. We have hundreds of cases in the college setting in Travis County. They’re happening in social gatherings (and) extracurricular activities.”