A lot more people are out and about than a few weeks ago, but this was Congress Ave just north of Ben White at 8:30 a.m. That certainly doesn’t look like pre-COVID rush hour.
COVID cases surge in Austin
Travis County experienced its two highest one-day totals for new COVID cases on Monday and Tuesday, with 118 and 164 new cases, respectively. The previous one-day high was 88 on June 1.
The good news is that this has not been accompanied by a surge in hospitalizations so far. There are currently 91 hospitalized, 36 of whom are in the ICU and 26 are on ventilators in the five-county metro area.
Could this be due to a surge in people getting tested after attending protests? Austin Public Health director Mark Escott says that’s probably not the big reason because it often takes a week for people to get test results.
Unanimous support on Council for police reform resolutions
City Council’s discussion yesterday on police reform showed no signs of disagreements between Council members. At the very least, it appears that the resolutions scheduled for Thursday that call for reforms to use-of-force policies and shifting funds from APD to other public safety strategies will encounter no resistance.
Alter says APD needs new leadership
Council members have used different words to make the point, but by my count Alison Alter became the fifth Council member to call for APD Chief Brian Manley’s resignation or demotion. She came to the conclusion, she said, after re-watching the chief’s responses to questions from last week’s meeting over the weekend.
“We need to breathe new air into a department that time and time again has come short,” she said, highlighting the mishandling of sexual assault cases, APD’s response to the protests, use-of-force incidents, and the Tatum Report, which alleged that officers were afraid to report misconduct within the department.
She added: “This is really difficult for me to say, but I feel that at this point in time, we need different leadership of our public safety department.”
She suggested that a resistance to “cultural change” at the department was an issue not just for Manley, but for Rey Arrellano, the assistant city manager who oversees APD, and for Troy Gay, the #2 at the department.
Nobody on Council responded to Alter’s comments, which came at the end of the meeting. The mayor’s office declined to comment when asked whether he believed Manley should resign.
What good are Street Impact Fees?
Over the last four years City Council has been exploring the idea of implementing Street Impact Fees. SIFs are a fee that is levied on new development to pay for the road improvements made necessary by the project. Specifically, they are calculated based on the number of car trips that the project is anticipated to add to the existing infrastructure.
The city already forces developers to pay for the impact their projects have on infrastructure through a convoluted “pro rata” system. However, the money the city collects from those payments can only be used for streets that are directly impacted by the project.
A universal SIF would be different. The city could use the fee revenue on any projects that boost vehicle capacity within a six mile radius. Thus, the idea is that the city would be split into 17 districts, and the fees levied on a project could be used for a project in its district.
The problem is, state law requires that SIFs only be used to expand car-carrying capacity by building new roads, expanding existing roads, improving access management or improving intersections.
You can’t use a SIF to build an urban trail, a bus stop or a standalone bike lane. You can, however, use SIFs to build new sidewalks and bike lanes that are part of a project to boost roadway capacity. And at least according to an ATD spokesperson, that could include upgrading an existing bike lane from unprotected to protected.
Could they incentivize good things?
Driving up the cost of housing to build more car lanes is definitely not my idea of good policy for Austin. So my inclination is to view this potential change as worse than the status quo.
There are some ways the outcomes could be less bad than expected, though. The SIF policy proposed by a task force envisions a number of ways that developers could cut their fees, including by offering some affordable housing or things that discourage car use, such as bike racks, bike lanes, on-site showers (for employers). Mixed-use developments could also be eligible for a discount.
Fees could vary dramatically by area
The fees would differ between the 17 districts based on the roadway capacity needs. Below is the anticipated median fee that would be levied for a single-family home by district. You can see it would be nearly 7x higher in Southwest District K than in Central District I.
|The good thing is that the fees go down as the units go up. Below, for instance, are the estimated median fees that would be levied per unit for duplexes and other “missing middle” multifamily.|
|For larger multifamily projects, the per-unit fee would be even lower. See below.|
|What’s important to remember is that the fee is only supposed to be levied based on the cost of the demand that will be generated in the next 10 years. The fee is not supposed to account for the current unmet demand or demand that is generated more than 10 years from now. |
If the city really wanted to, it could levy fees that would generate up to $1.8 billion over the next decade, staff estimates. However, the proposal that is being floated does not imagine charging the maximum allowed by state law, but about 35% of the max for residential projects and 50% of the max for commercial projects. And then there are the discounts that developers can qualify for. Taking all of that into account, staff estimates the fees will generate $285 million over a decade, only a sliver of the estimated $1.2 billion of current demand for new road capacity.
It doesn’t seem like this is getting any pushback on Council but a lot of developers, particularly infill builders, are worried about the costs and say this will drive up the cost of housing.
Below is another set of hypothetical projects and how they would be impacted by the new fees compared to the status quo. The IFAC Recommendation is what Council will likely be considering.
|NEWS AROUND TOWN|
Lax behavior, lack of masks tied to surge in COVID cases say officials: Escott said the reopening of businesses alone is not the reason for the increase in positive tests. Also, because of it can take a week or more to receive results after getting tested, Escott said the recent spike in new cases can’t be tied to the social justice protests that began in the final days of May. Any infections that arose from the protests would be reported later this week and into next week, Escott said.“Quite frankly we also have an increase in risk-taking behavior,” he said. “People are less cautious, they’re not wearing masks as much, they’e not social distancing as much, and there not paying as close attention to personal hygiene messages like washing your hands frequently and not touching your face.”
We’ll see what things look like a week from now, after protesters start getting their results back. Q&A with Austin’s largest apartment builder: Journeyman Group President Sam Kumar said his company will probably build at least 600 fewer apartment units in Austin this year than it had initially planned.Despite that, the company is still projected to have 2,100 apartment units under construction this year, he said. That’s about the same or slightly more than Journeyman built last year.
Fires under I-35 left homeless with nothing. Volunteers stepped up: “During the riots, all my stuff got burnt up. My mattress, my tent – all that stuff got burnt up,” he said. “So, [I’m] starting all over – again.”Howard said he’s been living under I-35 for four months. When the protests outside APD headquarters got heated May 30, he decided to leave.
What’s interesting is that everybody seems to agree there is nothing lower than burning a homeless man’s mattress and yet many of us believe that person should be ticketed/arrested and have his belongings confiscate
The rise in the number of positive COVID cases in Travis County has slowed as a result of a sharp reduction in person-to-person contact, Mark Escott, interim head of Austin Public Health, told City Council this morning.
The rate at which new confirmed cases are doubling is now at about 20 days, even though testing has ramped up significantly in the last couple weeks. In more encouraging news, of the first 735 people who signed up for tests through APH’s online portal, only 16 tested positive (2.18%). Remember, that’s only a fraction of the tests being conducted countywide (many through private providers), but it’s a big drop from the 10% positive rate among those who had been tested up until last week.
We still don’t have the capacity to do widespread testing of those without symptoms, which would be ideal because it would allow us to get a sense of how many asymptomatic cases are floating around. Right now we’re still only testing those who report symptoms or those who have been in close contact with somebody who was infected.
“This is really reflecting of this community’s efforts to flatten the curve,” said Escott. “We need these efforts to continue. It’s critical that we continue to remind folks that this is not the result of luck.”
Those experiencing severe symptoms are disproportionately black and Hispanic. Latinos account for about 35% of Travis County’s population but 51% of local COVID hospitalizations. African Americans are about 8% of the population but 12% of hospitalizations.
Lots of constructions workers getting sick
Although the city and county stay-at-home orders initially restricted construction to projects deemed “essential,” Gov. Greg Abbott’s deemed all residential and commercial construction essential. Like me, CM Kathie Tovo said today that she had seen job sites that were not complying with social distancing guidelines and had heard constituents voice the same concerns.
Escott said among the infected there have been “a significant number of construction workers as well as families of construction workers.” It is “one of the dominant industries” among those infected, along with the grocery and health care sectors.
In other words: “The people getting sick right now tend to be the people who are working right now.”
Should we be optimistic? Ehh…
Where we go from here depends on how behavior changes in the coming weeks. We certainly are nowhere near the testing and contact tracing capacity to practically stamp out the disease, ala South Korea. The absolute best case scenario will be a steady, slow burn of hospitalizations and death until a vaccine arrives.
The slow burn will be possible only if people continue to interact at a far lower rate than usual. And frankly, I think it’s a good bet that person-to-person contact will continue to be far under normal levels. A national poll released today by the Washington Post shows that 63% of Americans are at least “somewhat” worried about getting ill and only 22% say they’d feel comfortable going to a restaurant at this point. There are sharp partisan divides, but even a majority of Republicans say they’re ready to dine out yet.
But there’s definitely going to be increased interaction. That’s for sure. And that is going to lead to an increase in transmission.
What is unclear to me is what the governor will do if hospitals around the state become overwhelmed in June or July. Will he reimpose restrictions or is he going to let us ride this out? Both outcomes seem plausible to me. The United States has failed to contain the virus and is now in the process of giving up the fight in the hopes that we will eventually achieve herd immunity.
Moves to “reopen” Texas could very likely prompt a surge in COVID infections that will overwhelm area hospitals and lead to thousands of deaths, two experts told City Council yesterday.
Lauren Ancel Meyers, a UT professor of biology and statistics who has been modeling the progress of the disease in the Austin area, attributed Austin’s relatively low body count to its success in reducing person-to-person interaction over the past five weeks. She estimates that interactions are down 95%.
If we drop back to a semi-normal situation, where interactions are only down 40% from their usual level, the model projects that area hospitals will exceed their surge capacity in early to mid-June. If no additional social distancing measures were ordered to reverse the trend, Austin will experience a “catastrophic” three months that would Meyers said would resemble the chaos that engulfed Italy and New York City in recent weeks.
However, the death toll in that scenario will vary widely depending on how effectively we “cocoon” high-risk populations: the elderly and those with certain health conditions. If overall interactions are reduced by 40% but the at-risk population is able to avoid 95% of interactions, her model projects 2,900 deaths in the metro area by September. If, however, the at-risk group’s interactions only stay 80% below normal, deaths would shoot up to 6,500.
For what it’s worth, it’s hard for me to imagine how a change in most of our behavior would not also impact the behavior of those in at-risk groups. It’s one thing to tell retired people to stay at home, but many people at-risk are younger people who are not able to get out of work, despite underlying health conditions. So far the governor has not suggested that those people will be eligible for unemployment or disability.
Assuming no measures were taken to counteract the catastrophic scenario Meyers described, the community would reach “herd immunity,” at some point in September, which would significantly reduce the spread of the disease.
The prospect of another lockdown
Meyers also offered another scenario, in which state government responds to a major surge in cases by putting in place another lockdown.
For instance, if the goal was to reduce overwhelming hospitals, a logical “trigger” for another lockdown would be 100 COVID hospitalizations per day. If we only reduce interactions by 40%, we’ll hit that point in mid-June and then lock down for another three months, likely forcing schools to delay opening until mid-September.
The good news, she says, is that the second lockdown would probably be the last. Drastic measures will not be necessary after that due to herd immunity.
The consequences of exceeding hospital capacity
Clay Johnston, dean of the Dell Medical School, said that Meyers’ model likely understated the limits on hospital capacity. There are only about 1,000 available hospital beds in the metro area right now, he said. The 3,200 beds in her model is the “surge capacity” that would involve doubling up of beds and putting people in hallways and the emergency room.
Johnston also noted that Meyers’ model does not assume that the death rate will increase as hospitals overcrowd. In fact, patients will be far more likely to die in that scenario because they won’t be getting adequate care, said Johnston.
So what do we do?
If we don’t dramatically increase testing capacity and boost contact tracing, it won’t make much of a difference whether we reopen now or some time in the future, says Meyers. The benefit of continuing the lockdown for at least a couple more weeks is that it will “buy us valuable time” to ramp up testing, she said.
Travis County still has a far higher testing rate than the other major urban counties in Texas. At about 66 per 10,000, we’re way ahead of Harris, Dallas, Bexar, El Paso and Tarrant. It appears that most people who report symptoms of the virus can get scheduled for tests within 24 hours, but the testing capacity is still nowhere near what it would need to be at to effectively manage the spread of the disease through testing and contact tracing.
Until we have a vaccine, the most likely way to prevent a catastrophic spread is to conduct widespread testing, including of people who don’t have any symptoms, so that those who test positive can quarantine.
What will people do?
It will take a few weeks before we see whether the grim scenarios Meyers’ discussed come to pass. Her model cannot predict exactly how people will behave in the coming weeks. She had to make an educated guess about how people will act in a situation that we’ve never experienced before; therefore her model assumes that in the coming weeks the average Austinite will be engaging in 40% fewer interactions than they would be in the pre-COVID world.
It’s very possible, however, that interactions will not increase that much. Or that they’ll increase even more. Only time will tell.