Austin Stage 4 COVID restrictions: What they mean if you're vaccinated

Hospitalizations and cases of the coronavirus are continuing to rise in Austin and across the country. Austin-Travis County is currently in Stage 3 of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, but on Monday night, the region reached levels that are likely to send it back into the stricter Stage 4 of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, according to Austin Public Health officials.

More: Austin likely to revert to Stage 4 COVID guidelines as cases and hospitalizations continue to rise, officials say

But what does moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4 actually do? Here's a recap of the city's risk-based guidelines, and what they mean for Austinites:

What's the deal with these stages?

Back in May 2020, Austin Public Health unveiled a five-stage guideline system to help residents understand the level of coronavirus risk to the community and offer guidelines they should follow to avoid transmitting or contracting the disease. The numbers increase to indicate a more dangerous stage of the pandemic and trigger more restrictions accordingly, with Stage 1 being the safest and the Stage 5 being the riskiest.

What's the difference between Stage 3 and Stage 4?

Stages 1, 2 and 3 look almost identical in their mask-wearing guidance, the caveat being that in Stage 3, individuals who are high risk and unvaccinated should avoid all gatherings, dining, shopping and traveling — both indoors and outdoors — unless it's essential.

That changes in Stage 4. Unlike Stages 1, 2 and 3, vaccinated individuals are advised to put on masks when attending private gatherings, dining and shopping in Stage 4. Unvaccinated individuals are advised to avoid those activities altogether, unless they are essential.

What about businesses? Business owners under Stage 4 can still decide whether or not to require customers to wear masks. Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, said Friday that she had no immediate plans to attempt to reinstate the previous mask mandate that required businesses to have a masks-on policy. 

What would trigger a shift from Stage 3 to Stage 4?

Austin-Travis County only officially shifts stages when public health officials say so, but the city has laid out certain thresholds that indicate it might be time to shift. The primary indicator is the seven-day average for new daily hospital admissions, but the city also takes into account the seven-day moving average of hospitalizations, number of patients in the ICU, ventilator usage, positivity rate, and the seven-day moving average of cases.

A shift from Stage 3 to Stage 4 is recommended when the city reaches a seven-day moving average for new daily hospital admissions of 30. Austin reached that average on Monday, according to the city's dashboard, but an official shift into Stage 4 has not been announced by officials yet.

Do COVID-19 restrictions apply to vaccinated people?

Yes — the guidelines for vaccinated and unvaccinated people are just different.

In all five stages, unvaccinated individuals should wear masks. Vaccinated individuals can forgo their masks, unless traveling, in Stages 1 through 3. In Stages 4 and 5, unvaccinated people should avoid all non-essential gatherings and outings, while vaccinated people can engage in them as long as they're masked.

What about herd immunity?

Austin Public Health officials say it will take between 70% to 90% of all eligible (currently those 12 years old and over) Austin and Travis County residents getting fully vaccinated to reach herd immunity. As of Wednesday, 53% of Travis County residents of all ages and 62% of Travis County residents 12 years old and over were fully vaccinated, according to Texas Department of State Health Services data.

Herd immunity occurs when enough people in a community are protected from getting a disease because they’ve already had the disease or they’ve been vaccinated. It's important because it even protects those who cannot be vaccinated, such as young children.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify that, according to Austin Public Health, herd immunity will be achieved when 70 to 90% of those eligible to receive a vaccine (currently residents 12 years and older) have done so. An earlier version of this story described herd immunity in terms of Travis County's total population.