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Some Austin music venues reopen to smaller crowds—but with thin margins and canceled tours, others never will
For a moment, everything almost seems normal.
The Friday night crowd at Riverside's Come and Take It Live is small but spirited. A few people watch Austin-based metal trio Muzzle Blast from the concert floor; others smoke on the patio or congregate around the bar, with far less than six feet between them and nary a face mask in sight.
Come and Take It Live is one of a handful of live music venues that have reopened since the end of May, following citywide shutdowns in mid-March to curtail the spread of coronavirus. As the Austin economy lurches back to life—and as the number of reported COVID-19 cases continues to increase—venue owners face a difficult proposition: Do they reopen their doors and hope their precautions help prevent infection, or do they stay closed and risk burning through their final reserves of cash?
For Come and Take It Live owner Anthony Stevenson, the answer was a simple matter of survival.
"Keeping a roof over our heads and keeping our employees fed is at the top of the list," he says.
Come and Take It Live is currently operating at half of its roughly 800-person capacity. Stevenson says he has encouraged venue staff to wear masks, made hand sanitizer readily available and tried to avoid contact when checking IDs or closing bar tabs. Still, he admits it's difficult to enforce any safety precautions once shows get started—especially as the state continues to loosen restrictions.
"I feel like people are becoming more and more comfortable already, and it's hard to adhere to guidelines when we don't know what they are 100%, because they have been changing," he says.
Many venues—particularly those on Red River Street, Austin's live music epicenter—remain closed and probably will for the foreseeable future. For many of these venues, to open at anything less than full capacity would be financially unsustainable due to their already razor-thin profit margins.
"Live music venues have a 98% cost model, which means that if you're really killing it in the business, you're making about 2% net," says Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District, which comprises more than 50 local businesses.
Cowan distinguishes between two types of live music venues in Austin: those that incorporate it into a larger business venture that includes retail, food and more; and those that make their revenue primarily from shows. Many Red River venues fall into the latter group, and they earn the vast majority of their annual revenue from tours and festival-adjacent shows. As long as the entire touring industry remains on hold, many midsized venues likely won't be able to justify reopening.
"Every big concert tour that has been scheduled here for the rest of the year, there's a likelihood that it won't happen," Mohawk general manager Tyson Swindell says. "The whole industry has re-routed their tours. It takes six months to plan a tour. You can't just pull the plug on it and then copy and paste everything over to three months down the line and hit 'go.'"
Cowan and Swindell both emphasize they are not public health experts and cannot give any scientifically backed forecasts for the future of Austin's live music industry. Still, Cowan predicts that if the coronavirus outbreak persists, several more venues will go the way of Barracuda, Plush and Scratchouse, which all shuttered last week.
"Managing expectations is really important," Cowan says. "If we can save 25-30% of the venues in Austin at this point, since we're disinclined to provide rent relief, we're going to be really fortunate."
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With more research done on the COVID-19 Delta variant, Austin Public Health is upping its goal of 70% vaccinated to at least 80% due to the extreme virality of the strain.
As more Delta cases are identified—up to 29 cases are confirmed in Travis County—health officials are urging the unvaccinated to get their shots to contain the spread and relieve hospitals from reaching full capacity.
Austin-Travis County surpassed the Stage 5 threshold on Friday and has reached a seven-day average of 61 hospital admissions. However, Austin health leaders have yet to make an official shift as the Delta variant calls for new guidance, APH Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said at a joint Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning.
The new guidance has yet to be released, but Walkes said it will take into account the viral load of Delta on both unvaccinated and vaccinated people.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox, which has a herd immunity threshold of at least 90% vaccinated.
Although 63.42% of those eligible in Travis County are fully vaccinated, breakthrough cases—where vaccinated people are contracting COVID-19—are being identified. APH has identified 1,496 breakthrough cases of the roughly 800,000 vaccinated. Most breakthrough cases are showing less severe symptoms or are asymptomatic, according to APH.
Health officials are still asking residents to wear masks, although the city cannot mandate any masking orders due to an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Our challenge is going to be whether we're going to stand as a community and everyone who can get vaccinated, get vaccinated, and everyone wear a mask—that's what it's going to take," Walkes said.
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Save Austin Now police petition will reach November ballot after county clerk certifies 25,000 signatures
Save Austin Now is now 2-0 over Austin City Council after its petition to add more staffed police officers to the Austin Police Department was certified, garnering over the 20,000 votes needed to make it on an election ballot.
The petition calls for more police staffing per city resident, quicker response times and more training for city police officers in the wake of increasing violent crime rates nationwide and a year of limited APD staffing. The City Council will now decide whether to implement the ordinance outright or add it to the November election ballot; it will likely do the latter.
Over 25,000 of the 27,778 signatures racked up by the public safety petition were certified as valid, well over the 20,000-vote threshold required to be certified with the City Clerk. City Clerk Jannette Goodall placed the city's seal of approval on the petition on Tuesday morning.
The petition, by the same political group that got the camping ban reinstated through a petition in May, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
Austin's 160 patrol vacancies have dropped its staffing rate to 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the department. APD's response time has increased by about one minute and 50 seconds in a year.
The petition comes nearly a year after APD's budgets were slashed by city council following the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, which saw several demonstrators severely injured as millions called for justice in the police-related deaths of George Floyd and locally Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black man killed by APD officer Christopher Taylor, in April 2020.
Austin and the U.S. have experienced a widespread uptick in violent crime rates in 2021. The city has reached 49 homicides in 2021, higher than the total number of murders in all of 2020 and the 38 homicides in the city in 2019. Austin police officers have seen response times rise as the department suffers increased vacancies and fewer newcomers while cadet classes are being readjusted.
Opponents argue the ordinance would ramp up a policing budget while taking away from other departments including Fire, EMS, violence prevention, and mental health care. City Council Member Greg Casar, the Travis County Democratic Party and the Austin Justice Coalition have spoken out against the organization's latest public safety move, calling out the campaign as a "right-wing petition" that misleads those who sign.
🔥 PANTS ON FIRE: Republican-front group Save Austin Now is lying about their petition!
They say their measure is about police reform, when it's really about devastating our city budget - all for the benefit of the police union. Watch the video here ⬇️ #ATX pic.twitter.com/Z6QQSfhHfH
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) August 2, 2021
The latest battle between city council and Save Austin Now will be decided by Austin residents in the Nov. 2 election.
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Austin City Limits fest and iHeartRadio Fest are the latest festivals to announce the removal of rapper DaBaby, who has come under fire for homophobic comments made during a recent festival.
The 29-year-old rapper, whose real name is Jonathan Lyndale Kirk, was dropped by Lollapalooza just hours before his set on Sunday, followed by the Governor's Ball in New York and Nevada's Day N Vegas after making unsolicited comments about men with HIV/AIDS at the Rolling Loud Festival in Miami. Rolling Stone Magazine confirmed with iHeartRadio organizers that DaBaby will no longer perform.
DaBaby will no longer be performing at Austin City Limits Music Festival — lineup update coming soon. pic.twitter.com/jAYfdJFxJf
— ACL Festival (@aclfestival) August 3, 2021
There is no word on who he will be replaced with yet, though rumors on ACL's subreddit, r/aclfestival, are saying they expect Tyler, The Creator, who performed at Lollapalooza. Kirk will be replaced at Day N Vegas by rapper Roddy Ricch.
Kirk later backtracked his offensive statements on his Instagram story, but again faced criticism for not exactly apologizing.
After facing a second round of backlash for his Instagram statements, the rapper posted on Instagram, saying:
In addition to being dropped from the festivals, DaBaby has been denounced by fellow celebrities like Dua Lipa, Madonna and Elton John.
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