Austin Mayor Steve Adler on battling the pandemic: “When this virus comes, it comes fast”

The city of Austin occupies a unique place in Texas. It’s young and hip and politically anomalous, one of a few blue dots in the middle of a massive, historically deep-red state, and it’s famous for going against the grain of a state that itself is famous for going against the grain.

To make it weirder, it’s also the state’s capital, and home to one of the largest institutes of higher education in the country, the 50,000-student University of Texas, which is still planning to reopen as scheduled this fall.

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But political dynamics in Texas are changing, and Austin, along with the state’s other large and culturally diverse urban centers such as Dallas, San Antonio and Houston, is helping drive that change. Recent spikes in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, however, driven by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s reckless and rushed reopening plan based almost exclusively on political interests, have made clear that Texas still has a long way to go.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat first elected in 2014, has helmed his fast-growing city — now approaching a million residents — through the Sturm und Drang of the crisis. Until recently Austin, like Texas overall, seemed to be doing well. It was Adler’s pressure, alongside leaders of other large Texas cities, that eventually compelled Abbott to lock down the state back in March, and Austin residents have largely been exemplary in their behavior.

But after a month of increasingly relaxed restrictions in May, Texans grew more comfortable and increasingly mobile. Like many other Americans in many other places, they convinced themselves the crisis was over. Cases began to spike across the state in June, and by the end of the month, hospitalizations had begun to increase as well. Now death rates have begun to tick upward as well, after hitting a low in early June, and the cities of Texas, along with other Sun Belt states such as Arizona, California and Florida, are the country’s biggest hotspots.

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This week, Austin re-entered the “red zone” for coronavirus infections, bringing Adler to a precipice: Will he shut down the state’s capital city once again, in defiance of the governor?

Salon spoke with Adler about that very real possibility, as well as the pressures he faces as mayor, the powers and constraints on his office, and the difficulty of making life-or-death decisions in a time of deep uncertainty and mistrust.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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Could you start with a bird’s-eye of where Austin is now?

In terms of monitoring what’s happening with the virus in our community, we started focusing a long time ago on new hospitalizations — as opposed to new cases — so that we could have a standard against which we could develop triggers and warnings so that we could plan and change behaviors with enough time to impact what was happening to us.

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So in late May we developed a risk chart for our community that showed where we were. At the time, we’d call that kind of a yellow area. There’s a blue and a green area if we were to do better than we were doing. And then we had an orange and a red area risk level if we started seeing an increase of virus infections and hospitalizations in the community.

And then we developed triggers, so that if we hit certain benchmarks we’d know at that point we needed to dramatically change what we were doing in terms of behaviors in the community or we would follow a curve which had us overwhelming our hospitals. We had a score that moved us from yellow to orange, and now we’ve done that, and moving now from orange to red.

Right now we’re at about 70 hospitalizations a day. And the modeler told us that when we reached somewhere between 70 and 123 [a day], we would need to move into a shutdown, or we would overwhelm our hospitals. Whether that number was closer to 70 or closer to 123 depended on how fast we were moving into that area. So the faster we were moving when we entered into that range, the sooner we had to move to shelter-in-place.

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My guess is that we’re going to be at probably 75 to 90 hospitalizations this week. My sense is that we may find that we’re not going as fast into today as we were moving two weeks ago, that we were accelerating more quickly two weeks ago. There was more virus transfer two weeks ago than today.

If that’s the case, we may have bought ourselves another week to be able to make that decision to shut down. And if we can continue to slow down the hospitalizations, maybe we’ve bought another two weeks or three weeks. And if we can buy that many, maybe if we sustain it, we can avoid a shutdown and our numbers will crest and head back down. We don’t know.

[On Friday afternoon, Adler reported that Austin’s seven-day daily hospitalization rate “has actually declined over the last two and a half weeks. A few days ago we were up to 75, and now we’re back down below 70. … That said, it’s a real concern, and I think our margin to act is significantly lower than that high end of 123.”]

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As mayor, what level of controls do you exercise over the city that can help address the hospitalization rate?

The most powerful tool that I have as mayor, that probably any mayor has, is the bully pulpit and the ability to set the agenda or priorities for the community. We can talk about orders and that kind of stuff. But the most important power I have is the ability to get information to my community so that it can make decisions.

So by laying out the risk framework in those color-coded areas where every day my community could watch what was happening to the seven-day running average of hospitalizations, they could be involved in what was happening, and they understood what it meant to have a trigger. And then the community could decide whether or not they should alter behaviors to stop that increase, or whether they were okay with the trigger coming.

As a resident, I appreciate that resource, and I’ve actually used it. I’ve changed my behavior based on those numbers. But I’m wondering, in your view, how compliant or responsible Austin has been, especially looking at the massive state. Just this week it was reported that at least eight sheriffs in Texas are refusing to enforce the fine that Abbott has imposed statewide for not wearing masks. Could you contrast your city’s performance with these ridiculous, dangerous attitudes of some people in some parts of this state? Because I’ve been pretty proud of this city.

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I have too. It was cities that moved the state to the lockdown back in March. As you recall, the governor wasn’t ready to move. But he allowed cities to move, and so cities did, almost in concert with one another. We were able to take over 60% of the population of the state into lockdown pretty effectively.

And we did that by adopting orders, but I’ll tell you — a good part of the community was already moving in that direction anyhow, because they were also watching the same news reports and the same data and numbers that the leaders were looking at. The orders kind of pushed people across, because the orders send a really important message that it’s serious and it’s important and these are the steps we need to take because they’re effective and they work.

So we were able to basically shut things down when we got to that place. And then the governor came and started opening up the economy, which puts us at some measure of risk. At that point in time we needed to watch the numbers, and to my eyes, the governor was moving pretty quickly from one phase to another without really assessing what the impact was of the phases that we were moving out of. But still, our numbers were staying relatively steady. There wasn’t a huge spike. But as we got into June, we started seeing a pretty significant spike.

At that point we pressed the governor as hard as we could to do a statewide mask policy, which he was not inclined to do. To his credit, he spoke about the importance of wearing masks, and he wasn’t adverse to having a picture taken of him wearing a mask. But there’s a big difference between doing that and then actually making masks mandatory, because I think it’s a confused message. If you don’t make it mandatory, people wonder, “Well, if it’s optional, maybe it’s not that important.”

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The message gets even more confused when you hear the president speaking or the lieutenant governor speaking because they were, it seemed, almost creating the message deliberately that the virus was not important and it would go away. We just had to let it run through the system. The president in particular said that masking was optional, and that by the way, he wasn’t going to do it. What kind of message does that send to a community?

Abbott has said privately that he knew that reopening the economy would lead to an increase in cases. He was privately opposed to doing it, but went with the political winds. In your own discussions with him, do you meet with success? Are they productive, and do you see him as being persuadable?

I have limited contact directly with the governor. I’ve had more contact with his chief of staff and some of his appointees to the coronavirus task force. But I’ve been encouraged from the beginning that the governor said that he would be following the science and the data, because he’s looking at the same science and data that I’m looking at. So it would be harder in some other states where I’ve seen other governors that seem to be completely untethered to science and to data.

That said, I mean, obviously he’s dealing with his personal views or his political constituents. I’m not concerned about whether telling people they have to wear a face mask is impinging on a liberty interest, because I don’t think that anybody has a liberty interest to spread disease to my family. But I know that was a concern the governor had, and it was one of the reasons why he would not make masks mandatory at a time when it would have been helpful to stop the trajectory that we found ourselves on, with admissions into our hospitals and our ICUs.

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In June he allowed us to require that businesses mandate masks, and that was a step in the right direction, but not the same as him mandating it, from a messaging standpoint. He eventually did it, but I wish he would have done that sooner. On the Thursday before July 4, letting us make masks mandatory? Again, good, but I wish he had done it sooner.

Do you see Abbott’s approach as one of delegation, then? The problem that I’ve seen with the president abandoning all responsibility has been this trend of delegation — not just of responsibility, but of blame, which flows down to the local level. Do you feel Abbott is now passing not just the responsibility, which in some ways is good, but also passing the blame? Have you been in touch with other mayors about this?

Well, the cities have been talking, and the cities have been meeting. It was a bipartisan group of mayors that sent the governor a letter asking him to do a statewide masking order, or at least give the local jurisdictions the ability to do one on their own which, I think, precipitated him letting us require businesses to require masks.

I read the most recent statement from the governor. Governors and mayors are doing everything they can to try to move the behaviors in the community.

Now, I’m not convinced that the best way to move behaviors in a community is to arrest or give tickets to a few people. And there are not enough police officers or deputy sheriffs to be able to enforce a change of behavior in a community by enforcing it that way.

We did the lockdowns or the stay-at-home orders in April and March, but we never arrested or ticketed anybody. The way you get a community to move is by giving it the information, the data, to be able to understand why it’s important and that it’s effective, and that by their conduct they can actually change the course of events in their city. And if you can effectively communicate that message, then you have a community that changes its behavior and it moves.

Do you then feel frustration when you look to the more scattered areas in both East and West Texas, both East and West, where the communities, for whatever reason, are not acting the same way on the data that perhaps people are in Austin and other large cities? Do you feel that puts your city at risk?

Well, I’m focused on what’s happened in the other major cities, because I think that has the greatest impact on what’s going to happen in my city. Some of these smaller areas have been ignoring the data and the science, and are now having to deal with that. And their communities are now having to restructure their behaviors, too, as they learn more.

The Texas Republican convention has not yet been canceled or postponed. Do you think there’s an incentive for Abbott to allow mayors to close down so he can point to them — again with this blame delegation — and not have to deal with the blowback of canceling the convention himself?

You know, I’m not the one to try to think through the right strategic direction for either the Republicans or for Abbott on a partisan direction.

The reason we’re where we are right now is because when you open up the economy and try to do it in a way that looks like the way the economies were opened in the past, you create too great of an opportunity for the virus to spread. The governor owns that.

But regardless, my job is to try to keep my community as safe as I can. So I talk directly to my community, and I say, “For right now, if you can stay home, stay home. Avoid groups. If you go outside, make sure you mask. Make sure you social distance.”

I think there’s a big difference between behavior in our community today than after the first two or three weeks of June. For the better. And I think that’s in part because the community perceives there’s a greater risk. They’ve been hearing the messaging about what the models show about numbers in our hospitals and our ICUs.

And then there was the social outburst of the [Black Lives Matter] protests, which were pretty intense for a few days in Austin. I guess one side effect of that might be people became more comfortable being out of the house or outside.

Or a lot of people stayed inside because they didn’t want to be out where the demonstrations were happening. You know? So from an epidemiological standpoint, you don’t know what the facts are. But it does not appear as if the protests contributed to a spike in the city. We’re not seeing that anecdotally, from the contract tracing that we do.

What have you taken from other mayors that you’ve spoken with, in Texas or other states?

I talk to mayors all the time in lots of different forums. I’m impressed with the amount of communication that’s happening among city leaders. Frankly, in my six years of being mayor I’ve seen that happening more and more frequently as cities do more and more directly with each other. More and more, cities are becoming the real incubators in innovation and the real economic engines. And this is no different.

So yes, I’ve learned a lot from lots of people, going back to the initial decision to close South by Southwest, which was informed by what was happening in Miami with their event and New Orleans and San Jose, who were a little ahead of us in the curve, but also mayors from around the world. I’ve been on numerous phone calls and Zoom things with mayors from major cities all over the world. So, yes, everybody’s benefiting from what everybody else is doing.

I think one of the things that you learn is that when this virus comes, it comes fast. And it is exponential growth that is shocking and surprising.

There’s a limit to how effective even daily data can be, because of the lag between infections and hospitalizations, and then between hospitalizations and the death rate. As mayor, you’re looking down the road, but other people might not understand the lag. Is that a difficulty? 

Yeah. I mean, when you’re trying to wake everybody up, it’s much easier to message when the enemy forces are at the front gate. It’s harder to say, “The enemy isn’t here yet, but they’re going to be here in two and a half weeks,” because everybody looks at the front gate, and they don’t see anybody there. They want to go back to bed.

So it is harder. But that makes it no less important. And everybody here had a chance to see what happened in New York. They could see what happened in Italy. So it’s not like it’s without information. But, yes, it’s a harder sell. But the public is smart, and a lot of what we have to do is just lay out the information and the data so that people can see it.

You’re not in charge of the schools in Austin, let alone the colleges. But in just about three weeks we will supposedly have tens of thousands of people descend on the city when the University of Texas comes back for the fall. Just this week the school sent out an email saying that one of the custodial workers who got infected this spring has died. What are your thoughts on the city hosting this influx of students from not just around the state, but around the country and internationally? Have you tried to take the school’s temperature, so to speak, to see what they’re thinking?

We have regular meetings. The university has a representative that works with the city, as do the school district and the community college. So we’re all talking. And yes, I’m concerned about students coming back. Part of the way that works or doesn’t work is dependent on how disciplined students are with respect to wearing face coverings and maintaining social distancing. Part of that’s going to depend on how well the university is in creating that expectation in their community, the same way we had to create that expectation here. Part of it is doing things like keeping bars closed so that you actually have a better handle or a better chance of making that succeed.

Do you anticipate the school staying open, or do you anticipate a fully online semester, or some hybrid? As you’ve said, the virus moves quickly, and the numbers are not looking good right now.

Don’t know the answer to that. I think part of that depends on what the virus load is in the city. If we need to, we’ll be trying to shutter the city — if that’s the only thing we can do in order to be able to protect ourselves. That’s obviously a last resort. But I am concerned about the university coming back. We’ll continue working with UT and do the things we need to be doing in the city to be able to deal with it.

I don’t know about football. I don’t know about big gatherings. I think that’s probably something different than some of the students coming back. But how the university does that and what the cultural norm they’ll create with that, we will be looking at that.

Obviously we’re looking down the road. Getting the virus burden down far enough so that if the university coming back is presenting a challenge, that we’re in a place to be able to shut things down and deal with it if we need to, that’s important.

But, no, I have not recommended the university not [bring students back] because so much of that depends on how they do it. Football, though — if they want to hold a big football game with 100,000 people, I’m going to be very vocal about that.

It feels almost like we’re back in that week in March, right before the bottom fell out, where there was just this sort of emotional hush. It feels like we’re on the precipice of something major again. How are you wrestling with that uncertainty? Are you able to say with any confidence what we’ll be able to do in Austin or statewide in the coming weeks?

I’m dealing with the uncertainty. I’m dealing with it all day long, so this job truly is 24/7. I mean, it’s been hard for me since March to be able to move past this at any point, because of the uncertainty and trying to play out so many different options and scenarios so as to be prepared, because it’s so uncertain.

One of the lessons that we learned really well in March and April, was we were able to hone our models so we could actually come up with some predictive technologies. Those predictive technologies indicated to me that we weren’t dealing just blind, that if we got on the wrong path, we would be able to identify we were on a wrong path in time for us to be able to fix it.

There’s some reassurance that comes from that. And that’s where we are right now. That’s why there’s kind of a hushed tone. We’re right at an edge. Do we shut things down or not? The answer to that is not unless we cross 70. Well, we crossed 70. But there is some peace of mind in knowing that if we are on the wrong path, we should be able to identify it in time to be able to change it.

How are you taking this personally, or physically, emotionally and psychologically — all the months that you’ve been in a position of responsibility, 24/7? I can see the distress and exhaustion on the faces of mayors and governors as they do press conferences.

I think that as I talk to my colleagues around the country, I think everybody’s tired. Everybody understands the importance of the moment. Everybody is really engaged, obviously, in this. I think we each have a responsibility to really focus on trying to keep our communities safe, and I think everybody is. The adrenaline’s going most of the time. We have a great team. There are a lot of really smart people that are all working on this. I think everybody builds off of everybody else.

The underserved and underprivileged communities in Austin tend to be geographically isolated, and changes are stark and fast from community to community. Do you see the virus taking a disproportionate toll on minority communities, as it has elsewhere?

Yes. The burden of this virus is falling disproportionately on communities of color because they’re the ones that are most susceptible. They’re the ones at most risk. They’re the ones that are least able to weather the social and economic interruption. And there are a lot of reasons for it. But yes, the people at greatest risk here are communities of color.

Communities of color are disproportionately getting the virus, going to the hospital and dying of the virus. They’re the people that have the least opportunity to be able to protect themselves and their families by working at home. They’re the ones that are our economic first responders. They’re health care workers, stocking shelves. They’re the people that we all expect to be out working so that the general community functions. They’re communities that disproportionately are coming from smaller homes and homes with multi-generational members, which increases the risks, for all those reasons and more, generations of not receiving a fair share of healthy foods and access to health care. All of these things add up.

Are you seeing that reflected in the numbers?

Sure. The percentage of people in our hospitals is over 60% Hispanic. The percentage of people dying among African Americans — I think the rate is three times higher than white people.

I hear you coughing a little, and it crossed my mind that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms just tested positive. I hope you’re OK. Maybe it’s just been months and months of this and you’re tired.

I think that’s what it is. I was tested once, didn’t have it. I’m not showing any of the other symptoms, don’t have a temperature. So I’m checking myself. I think it’s just allergies.

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