On Wednesday, Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith sat down with Austin Mayor Steve Adler for the Tribune’s first fully remote virtual event to discuss the effects of the novel coronavirus outbreak on the Austin community. Here's a look at some of Adler's responses to questions during the interview.
What is the “Stay Home — Work Safe” order? What are its impacts?
- “Public health officials estimated that the city was able to reduce physical interactions in the Austin community by about 50% prior to the order,” Adler stated. But he also noted that far too many people had been gathering in public spaces and in close proximity with one another before the order was issued.
- One of the primary purposes of the Stay Home — Work Safe order is to clarify the steps that the Austin community needs to take to reduce risk to the coronavirus. It also clearly outlines which essential businesses and activities are permitted to continue.
- Violation of the order is considered a misdemeanor, but Adler said that state and/or federal action would be required to place additional teeth into the existing ordinance.
- Adler noted that the goal of the order is for citizens to police themselves and to be vocal advocates for best community practices.
- “These things are disruptive,” Adler acknowledged, “and I recognize everybody wanting to hold on to as much of the normalcy of their [lives] as they can ... but we need to disrupt normal life.”
Why aren’t local schools being closed for the remainder of the school year?
- “I don’t have the ability to do that as the mayor of a city,” Adler explained. “Schools are independent districts ... but I do think that this deserves that kind of statewide consideration.”
- Adler said that he would like to see such measures adopted and would recommend that schools not be reopened for the remainder of the semester, citing the advice of the city’s public health director.
How would Adler assess the state and federal handling of the coronavirus outbreak?
- Asked about his response to President Donald Trump’s recent statements regarding the reopening of businesses by the Easter holiday, Adler said that he was left speechless. He added, “The thought or expectation that this is going to be over in two weeks hurts us” because it creates the impression that the situation is not one to be taken seriously.
- The current level of preparedness is not where it needs to be, Adler said, adding he has been disappointed by the president’s handling of the situation.
- Adler also wishes Gov. Greg Abbott’s response would be stronger, noting that “this is the time that we need state action.”
- Adler also said he wished there had been a stronger national response sooner. He says that had such a response been mounted early on in the outbreak on the national level, then the city would have canceled the South by Southwest festival sooner.
What measures can the city of Austin take to respond to public health needs?
- Adler emphasized that there is work the city needs to do to address the shortage of hospital beds. Based on current models of coronavirus spread, the area will hit its capacity for hospital beds and ventilators as early as three weeks from now. While social distancing and other preventive measures have helped reduce the need for beds, Adler says that still more needs to be done.
- Adler also expressed concern that the city does not have the supplies to conduct the volume of testing that is needed, so officials are prioritizing testing those who are most at risk.
- Because the city has so few tests relative to the need, Adler said, officials can’t get data they need, “so we have to make assumptions” about the number of cases that we have within the community.
- Adler said that he has not been tested for coronavirus as he has not had contact with anyone who has tested positive for the virus nor has he shown any symptoms.
- Asked about what is being done to support the local homeless community through the outbreak, Adler said he is concerned about Austinites experiencing homelessness as they are among the most vulnerable population.
- He stated that the city has a block of hotel rooms to help shelter and quarantine the homeless population, and he noted that the city has put in place a contingency plan to aid people experiencing homelessness when they are affected by the virus.
How should we be measuring economic concerns against the public health concerns of the coronavirus?
- Adler said he has no doubt that the unemployment rate in Austin, which had been in the single digits before the outbreak of the virus, is going to go up significantly and that “we have to do everything we can” to preserve as many local businesses as possible. Nevertheless, the impact that this outbreak is going to have on the local economy is going to be severe, Adler stated.
- Asked about recent comments that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made regarding the importance of economy versus public health concerns, Adler stated that “from our perspective, the decisions we are making are decisions that are motivated by public health and saving people’s lives.”
This virtual event series is presented by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Community Health Choice, Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas and the Texas Association of School Business Officials. Media support is provided by Univision and KXAN.
Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, and SXSW have been financial supporters of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.