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As a long-time Austin City Limits festival goer, Ashley Garcia was ecstatic to move to Austin in early 2020 and finally be in the same city as her favorite music festival. No more hotel rooms, hours of driving and extra fees to pay.
When COVID-19 hit and event cancelations swept through 2020, though some were proud of the organizers for taking the festival to a virtual format, many Austinites held their breath for an ACL that never happened.
"You could tell they were holding on as long as possible," Garcia said. "I guess those last months, that's when they finally gave the final word of 'nope, it's canceled.' It was so heartbreaking."
This year holds a glimmer of hope for festival attendees, artists and organizers alike. According to Fresh and Clean Media Director of Publicity Sandee Fenton, ACL still plans to hold an in-person festival in 2021, as promised. Though Fenton declined to answer further questions, she issued the following statement to Austonia:
"We are currently planning to hold the festival in Zilker Park in October. We remain in communication with local officials and will offer updates through our website and social media when we have more information to share. Of course, the health and safety of our fans, artists, staff and community is our number one priority and planned for accordingly."
Holding the festival this year will be a daunting task—ACL attracts almost 500,000 fans every year, a figure that doesn't include staff or performers, and tightly packs them together in front of stages.
At ACL 2019, fans packed so far behind Childish Gambino's stage that it was nearly impossible to see the band. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
For artists, the restart of gigs, concerts and festivals couldn't come soon enough, especially for Austin-born-and-raised artist Jackie Venson, who told Austonia that sheltering in place has made her feel confined after a jam-packed year of performing in 2019.
"I felt like I was just screaming at the walls I was stuck inside of, it was really crazy," Venson said. "When I lost my tour and when (festivals were) canceled, and I lost all of that income and all of that activity, I realized how dependent I was on certain things."
Venson performed at ACL 2018 and was part of last year's virtual live stream.
Jackie Venson at ACL 2018.
Although Venson said she found a certain independence in live streaming and being able to directly connect with her audience, after getting a COVID-19 vaccine through a volunteer program, she is ready to book as many shows as possible. Venson said she would even play ACL 2021 if she is asked.
"I don't think that musicians can get any lower than they are right now," Venson said. "I don't think that we'll ever get a harder blow than any of the blows of last year ... because if (musicians) can get through last year, period, they can handle anything. Anything."
Though the popular California music festival Coachella, which is normally held in April, was canceled due to COVID-19 in January, many other festivals are following in the footsteps of ACL. New York City's The Governor's Ball, normally held in June, has been postponed to September this year for optimal chances, Tennessee's Bonnaroo is scheduled to go on in September and while Chicago's Lollapalooza has neither confirmed nor denied the festival yet, it is run by the same companies as ACL and still has the 2021 tickets page up.
And aside from music events, locally, the University of Texas said this week it plans to have 100% capacity for fall football games this year, which would mean the gathering of 100,000 people at the Darrel K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
Ashley Garcia in front of the iconic ACL flags in 2016. She has gone to ACL every year for some time, until it was canceled last year. (Ashley Garcia)
For Garcia, anything is better than a virtual concert. If ACL 2021 goes on, she hopes to see Chicano Batman, a band that holds special meaning to her and represents her Hispanic heritage, and Austin's own Black Pumas, who captured her interest the first time she heard them play.
"I'll be the first one to buy a ticket," Garcia said. "I think (ACL) really does give Austin that 'Austin vibe.' You can tell everyone's there for one reason with the connection of the music and just having a good time. I think that all of that together makes it feel much bigger than it is."
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As Q2 packs fans like sardines, could city, CDC recommendations disrupt the 'biggest party in Austin'?
In a scene that seemed to mark the pandemic's triumphant end, over 20,000 mostly maskless fans packed into Q2 Stadium for Austin FC's debut at Austin's first professional sports stadium in June. That mask-free utopia couldn't have been possible even a month before, and it may not be possible once more as Austin and the CDC returns to mask recommendations again for the first time since May.
Austin returned to Stage 4 restrictions on July 23 as case rates tripled since the beginning of the month and hospital beds once again filled with COVID patients. The spike comes after the highly contagious Delta variant was detected in Travis County. In its Stage 4 announcement, APH said its recommendations will not affect large events, such as Austin FC games, from operating.
More recently, the CDC updated its recommendation for vaccinated people on Wednesday, saying that all people in high-risk areas—including Austin with more than 50 COVID cases per 100,000 people—wear masks.
With businesses reinstating mask policies and new fear in the air, Q2's carefree party atmosphere may be affected. The club released the following statement to Austonia: "Austin FC encourages all guests to observe Austin Public Health's recommendations and take appropriate action based on individual circumstances."
Fan clubs react
Some Austin FC fans are concerned about taking their young kids ineligible for the vaccine to home matches. (Austin FC/Twitter)
Austin Anthem member Seth Rau said he's heard a few people express more concern about home matches. Still, the demand for attending matches at Q2, which regularly reaches full capacity despite a lackluster first-season performance, is not going away anytime soon.
"We're starting to hear stories like, 'Oh, I have a 10 year old kid. My kid can't be vaccinated yet,'" Rau said. "So I think certain people are less willing to maybe go than in the past, but with everyone who doesn't want to go there are five people ready to claim their seats."
Rau said only few wore masks before last week, but at the last match on July 22, he said close to 5% wore masks. Based on sheer estimation as well as what he's heard, Rau said he expects a significant minority to pull out the masks once again when Austin FC plays on Saturday.
Masking recommendations are fine as long as the stadium remains at full capacity, Rau said.
"It's an annoyance, but it's not a big deal," Rau said. "I think if they ever started reducing capacity, that's where there would be true hell to pay."
While supporters groups, like the city of Austin, can't enforce mask mandates, Rau told Austonia they'll strongly recommend masking in certain situations, including taking a bus up to Dallas for the upcoming FC Dallas match. Rau said Stage 4 has brought new concerns and paperwork into the picture for the road trip.
"It's wild. Like, as a supporters' group, we never thought we'd have to worry about collecting people's health records," Rau said. "It is extremely important to us to keep our Verde familia safe,"
Could Q2 become a "superspreader"?
Some have drawn parallels to last fall when City Council Member Greg Casar and Austin Public Health officials strongly advised against in-person fans at University of Texas football games while in Stage 4.
No public official, including Austin FC fan Steve Adler, has commented, which a few have criticized. A city in which 63% of those eligible are fully vaccinated is different from the fall of 2020, however, and Q2 is still within CDC guidelines that don't recommend masks for those fully vaccinated while outdoors.
Still, some share concerns about the crowded stadium becoming a "superspreader," especially after a mass COVID outbreak in Scotland was tied to fans attending Euro 2020 soccer matches. Up to 2,000 fans traced their infection back to a single match, and controversial journalist Piers Morgan, who was fully vaccinated, said he tested positive for COVID on Tuesday after attending the Euro Cup final.
Now THATS a super spreader for the Delta variant. Learned today that the virus spreads like smoke in the air. Let’s get vaxxed up y’all.— Nick Garza (@nickrgarza) July 23, 2021
No matter the changes, Rau said that the fan club has supported Austin FC even in the strictest of COVID policies and won't stop now.
"We dealt with this at Colorado when we took a couple hundred people to Denver," Rau said. "But we were still able to have a great time in the middle of a pandemic."
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After Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating a ban on public camping, City Council directed staff to look into possible sanctioned campsites where homeless residents could live legally. Now two members are asking to shelve discussion on the controversial topic.
Staff presented dozens of possible sanctioned campsites across each fo the 10 council districts in late May, following the election. But members mostly pushed back on the proposed locations, citing cost, wildfire risk and lack of transparency as concerns.
With updated criteria, staff recommended two sites—one in District 1 and the other in District 8—for further review last week. After being briefed on the options during Tuesday's work session, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, and Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents District 8, issued a joint statement proposing "a pause" on further discussion of temporary sanctioned encampments.
"We are not convinced that these sites would be a cost-effective solution, but rather a band-aid tactic when we need to be supporting the long-term strategy to get folks off the street permanent," they said. "It is our responsibility to look at the situation holistically and objectively, and to spend out city's limited resources on solutions we know can work."
Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey noted that the two locations were imperfect and would require a lot of time and money to outfit as sanctioned campsites during the briefing.
City staff and homeless experts have previously raised concerns about sanctioned encampments, saying they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to to be temporary.
In 2019, staff declined to make recommendations for such sites despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."
But with Prop B being enforced and too few shelter beds and affordable units for the estimate unsheltered homeless population in Austin, the city is facing the same predicament that prompted District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo to pursue possible sanctioned campsites in the first place: "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said at a May 6 council meeting.
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Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
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