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Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced gyms and fitness studios can open at 25% capacity starting May 18—just over two months after local stay-home orders required them to close. They'll join a growing list of businesses—including restaurants, malls, movie theaters, barbershops and tanning salons—that have received the green light from the state amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But like restaurateurs and hair salon owners, personal trainers and yoga teachers are responding at their own pace—with some planning to reopen as soon as they're allowed to, and others waiting for more information from health officials and clients.
Starting Strength Austin, a franchise location on West Anderson Lane, is reopening May 18, and coach Jarrod Schaefer said he expects it to be close to full—within capacity limits. "We always wanted to open as soon as we could do so without getting into any trouble," he said.
For Schaefer, strength training is essential to health and wellbeing, and he feels a responsibility toward his members to get back to work. "We think that [reopening] will make the situation that they're in, because of the pandemic, a lot better for them," he said.
Each Starting Strength member will get their own 11-foot-wide training area and bag of chalk, and equipment will be disinfected between uses. Typically, the gym is restricted to 12 members at a time; when it reopens, that number will go down to eight. While some members have wanted to have long conversations with Schaefer about safety protocols, others have already scheduled sessions.
Matt Ryan, a personal trainer and owner of Heavy Mettle Fitness, is hearing similar feedback from his clients. While some are more comfortable continuing with virtual sessions, about half are ready to resume meeting in person. "I will be training as long as the client feels comfortable," he said, adding that he plans to wear a mask when they are allowed to resume May 18.
Other fitness studios are waiting for more information before making a decision either way.
Caroline Caswell and Brandi Jo Perkins opened Earth Commons in East Austin on March 15 after months of preparation—and one day before local officials issued stay-home orders that required them to close. The apothecary offers private holistic consultations, workshops and space for yoga classes and other events.
While Caswell and Perkins are itching to reopen, they have not yet decided when they will do so and are looking to their community and like-minded businesses for guidance.
"We're just really trying to be cautious and thoughtful, especially as a business that is here to help people in their health," Perkins said.
Earth Commons was able to shift its retail business online, with good response, the owners said. But their vision in opening the business was to create a gathering space, and some planned classes—such as one on ayurvedic self-massage—require in-person attendance.
"We don't want to have a class if people are questioning, 'Is this safe or not?'" Caswell said.
Similarly, Wanderlust Yoga—which has locations downtown and at the Domain—is staying closed until "every available precaution" can be taken, instructor Zoe Welch said. "Our plan is slow and safe," she added.
In the meantime, the local business has raised more than $20,000 through GoFundMe to help staff and is offering classes and workshops online. "If anything, we've been getting requests to keep the online yoga for as long as we can—even once we deem it safe to open the doors," Welch said.
Earth Commons and Starting Strength have also been pushed to develop their online audience during this shutdown period. But Schaefer said it doesn't replace the core business, adding: "We can't stay closed forever."
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.