January 17, 2022 6:00am

Austin Power Poll: Despite COVID Stage 5 status, many socializing without masks

Nearly four out of five Power Poll members have gotten a booster shot

Photo of Andrea Zelinski
Austin, TX Correspondent
 

As city leaders try to compel Austinites to tamp down the spread of the omicron variant by changing their behaviors, the response from Power Poll members are split between ceasing all social situations, wearing masks more diligently and not donning masks at all.

Here’s the breakdown: 20% of members have stopped attending social gatherings and eating at restaurants; 25% are still going out but are more intentional than they used to be about mask-wearing or who they’re dining with.

The rest say they haven’t budged their behavior at all since the January 6 announcement Austin triggered Stage 5 risk-based guidelines: 17% say they have worn masks consistently in public places and haven’t changed their behavior a bit; 27% say they don’t wear masks at all at indoor places like restaurants.

Specifically, 45%, which includes people now strapping on their masks while walking through crowded restaurants, are choosing not to wear masks when dining with people outside their households.

In other findings, nearly four out of five Power Poll members have gotten a booster shot. About one in five said someone in their household tested positive for COVID over the last month.

Here are the specific questions and answers to the January Austin Power Poll.

This survey was sent to 459 Power Poll members in the Austin area, where 131 responded for a response rate of 28.54%. The Power Poll is not a scientific poll, but a glimpse into the minds of those who wield influence in Austin. This includes public officials, CEOs, small business owners, community activists, restaurants owners and others. Power Poll is decidedly non-partisan.

Power Poll questions powerful leaders in approximately 25 cities across the country. Power Poll members share their opinions about pressing issues in their communities, giving the public a larger glimpse into what the people who run our cities are truly thinking. Power Poll aims to take similar surveys in the top 300 cities in the United States.

CONTEXT
It was another COVID Christmas for many families in Texas and across the country last month. Instead of dashing out for last-minute gifts, many were scrambling to find rapid tests that dwindled in supply. The next week, as New Year neared, some event organizers nixed celebrations and bands canceled performances citing either an abundance of caution or band members out sick.

By the time January 6 rolled around, Austin Public Health raised the region’s risk-based guidance to Stage 5, the most restrictive level, in hopes people would alter their behavior to slow the spread of the highly-contagious COVID-19 omicron variant. While symptoms associated with the omicron variant are less severe than past versions of the virus, the surge has led to a spike in hospitalizations and caused hundreds of absences among teachers, students, hospital staff and other institutions. The guidance, though, is a suggestion—per Governor Greg Abbott’s executive orders, local governments like Austin’s cannot require people to wear masks or show proof of vaccination to gain entry into a restaurant or business.

On Thursday, Mayor Steve Adler and County Judge Andy Brown decided to take the messaging over masking built into its risk-based status a step further: as of Monday, January 17, all Travis County businesses are required to post signs indicating whether masks and proof of a negative COVID-19 test are required for entry and whether employees must be vaccinated. The governor is likely to challenge Adler’s and Brown’s order.

The action by Adler and Brown to require businesses to post masking and testing requirements underscores the difficulty of influencing behavior in public places. Adler told the Austin American Statesman the sign requirement is not meant to shame businesses that don’t impose strict requirements but provide information. Conservative groups disagree and argue the notice is little more than virtue signaling.

Stage 5 of the risk-based guidelines asks people who are fully vaccinated and have had booster shots to wear masks pretty much everywhere with everyone: with people outside your household, outdoors, when traveling, dining and shopping. For unvaccinated people, the city recommends they stay home, not gather with anyone outside their household and only use takeout or curbside service at restaurants or shopping.

Results from the Power Poll show community leaders throughout Austin are not following the guidance, at least not to the letter. While the city is asking them to wear masks everywhere, almost half aren’t: 45% are not wearing masks in restaurants with people outside their household.

Conversely, 30% have stopped attending social gatherings and eating out at restaurants. Another 25% of members say they are still going out to restaurants but always wear a mask indoors, are wearing a mask unless actively eating or drinking or only dining at restaurants with members of their household.

As people tire of the lingering pandemic and the city muscles through this variant wave, it appears the city hasn't sold Austin on why it should take Stage 5 seriously.

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