South Congress Avenue shoppers mostly maskless a day after health leaders urge face coverings

South Congress Avenue shoppers mostly maskless a day after health leaders urge face coverings


Many shoppers on South Congress Avenue on Saturday chose not to cover their faces to protect against the coronavirus and instead continued post-pandemic practices, a concerning trend Austin area health leaders say has to stop after moving to Stage 4 of Austin Public Health’s risk-based guidelines following an uptick in cases. 

Dozens of maskless Austinities weaved in and out of South Congress establishments, enjoying drinks at Jo’s Coffee in-between making their selections from the plethora of clothing options and Austin knickknacks being sold on the strip. 

One among a handful of people wearing masks while out shopping was Sandra Quintanilla, who was joined by her masked husband and son. Quintanilla said that although she’s vaccinated, she has never stopped wearing a mask in public after losing six of her family members to coronavirus. 

“We need to stop the spread, that’s the bottom line,” she said. “I’ve had six family members die and it’s not worth spreading it to other people.”

Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Austin-Travis County health authority, announced on Friday that the Austin area would move back to Stage 4 just as the weekly average for new daily admissions to the hospital climbed to 34. The average for new admissions to signal Stage 4 territory is between 30 and 50, according to Austin Public Health. 

More: Austin-Travis County recommends masks, moves to Stage 4 of COVID rules

Walkes said the uptick in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations is likely due to the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreading through the nation. Health leaders are now asking residents who have yet to receive a coronavirus vaccine to sign up for one immediately. 

Walkes on Friday said she’s recommending that fully vaccinated people again wear masks in any situation where social distancing cannot occur, including shopping, dining, traveling and sporting events.

Texas Department of State Health Services data shows that 71.9% of Travis County residents who are 12 and older have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Of those, 62.65% are fully vaccinated. 

It will take between 70% to 90% of Travis County residents who are 12 and older getting fully vaccinated against the virus to hit herd immunity, which means it would become difficult for the virus to spread further because enough people are immune. 

However, Austin Public Health officials on Friday said that even if the rest of Austin-area residents get vaccinated immediately, masks would still be necessary to stop the spread of disease because it takes about a month from the first shot to become immune. 

The latest projections from the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium says if area residents don’t immediately heed Austin Public Health’s masking and social distancing guidelines, the area could surpass intensive care unit capacity by late August. 

An estimated 12,279 people would be hospitalized and 1,282 people could die by Oct. 1 if Austin residents do not adhere to Stage 4 guidelines, UT projections say. 

“It’s scary to be honest,” Quintanilla said Saturday. “Just stay home if you’re not willing to take extra precautions.” 

However, about a half-dozen unmasked residents on South Congress Avenue said they will likely not voluntarily put on a mask unless a business policy requires them. All of those interviewed Saturday said they were vaccinated. 

“It’s going to be hard to get people to wear masks again after allowing us to not wear them,” said Max Weaver, who lives in Austin. “I don’t think we’ll opt in on our own accord.” 

“I mean, we’ve followed the rules this far,” Rebekah Breque, who was walking with Weaver on South Congress Avenue, said Saturday.

Though she agreed with Weaver that it would be hard to get people to comply to wearing masks, she said: “We’ve gotten vaccinated and done everything we can and I think if we need to do more to prevent the spread, that’s fine.”

More: What you need to know about Austin’s Stage 4 COVID guidelines, mask recommendations

Sisters Alexandra Smith-Stocker and Micki Smith-Stocker said Saturday that they felt they should return to wearing masks despite being vaccinated, but said they’ve already moved away from the habit of carrying them and have not started back again. 

“We’re both vaccinated, but I definitely think that I should probably be wearing a mask more often,” Alexandra said.

“It’s nice to have the vaccine protection but, of course, it’s not 100%,” her sister added. “So, it’s kind of refreshing to see it ramping back up again.”

Zac Miles, manager at Marine Layer on South Congress, said many shops on the strip as of Saturday morning were still working together to come up with a unified plan on how best to keep employees and customers safe. 

More: Austin officials urge masks, even for those vaccinated, indoors in public to avoid COVID surge

Miles said businesses with the South Congress Merchant Association planned to continue having conversations over the weekend and hopefully make a decision by Monday. 

“Right now we’re just kind of waiting to see what we’re going to do,” Miles said. “We communicate with every other store on the block, so we kind of do it as a community.”

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