Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and other city leaders emphasized the importance of wearing masks in response to Gov. Greg Abbott's most recent order, which will lift business capacity restrictions and the statewide masking mandate next week.
Abbott said during a statewide press conference on Tuesday that he would "open Texas 100%" effective March 10 as case rates continue to drop and record vaccine shipments roll in. State mandates, which previously limited businesses' capacity and required customers to wear masks, will be reversed, and staying safe during the remainder of the pandemic will be a "personal responsibility," according to Abbott.
Adler, Brown, St. David's Hospital Dr. Jose "Mario" Ayala, Austin Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Laura Huffman, Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 286 President Chap Thornton and Austin local entrepreneur Joi Chevalier spoke out against Abbott's order during a Wednesday morning press conference.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, Abbott said he would be guided by science, and on Tuesday he broke that promise," Adler said. "When the governor breaks his promise to us, we must make a promise to each other."
Adler is concerned for frontline workers, who are still not eligible for vaccinations as a group, and said that vaccines alone are not the answer to protecting essential workers and other at-risk members of the community. Although the city can no longer penalize those who don't wear masks, Adler said he hopes that the possibility of more COVID deaths is enough to keep people wearing masks.
Only around 7% of Travis County residents who are 16 or older are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Until vaccinations reach 80% of the population, Brown said that the mask mandate should not be lifted and that herd immunity cannot be reached.
"Yesterday's announcement from the governor—it comes at a time when the community is still recovering and still in the middle of crises," he said. "This is not time to be lifting the mask ordinance. We are not declaring victory on the pandemic. We are not over the pandemic."
Brown said that a potential "third surge" due to people not wearing masks would be devastating to the community and could reverse much of the progress that has been made in recent months.
Austin Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Laura Huffman said that choosing to wear masks in public is vital to keeping businesses alive and supporting both business and customer safety.
"If you look at what's happened over the past year, we've seen a lot of our favorite businesses close in Austin," she said. "Be respectful of businesses who are doing everything they can to stay open."
According to St. David's Hospital's Dr. Jose "Mario" Ayala, COVID is a "lonely" disease that can not be taken lightly. Ayala said the lifting of the mask mandate goes against science and that the city needs to continue to promote vaccinations, especially to the local Hispanic population, whose members are overrepresented among COVID hospitalizations and deaths and underrepresented among vaccine recipients.
"We need to follow science and data, not politics," Ayala said. "With COVID, you're in the hospital (and) you have nobody, it is one of the loneliest diseases I've ever seen. It's a small price to pay."
Adler and Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said that the lifting of the mask mandate was done to deflect the state of Texas' failure to provide energy to the state during the winter storm. In the storm, millions lost power and water during a week of subfreezing temperatures. Through all of the city's efforts to recover both during and after the storm, Zarifis said that Education Austin workers continued to wear masks.
"In spite of state leadership, we continue to follow science," Zarifis said. "The reason we are still at some measure of success is not because COVID has gotten safer. You don't stop running halfway through the race, you will lose."
In Austin, COVID hospitalization rates are down 57% since Feb. 1, but fewer than 7% of residents are fully vaccinated.
"We have to decide whether or not masking happens in a widespread manner in our community i just hope and trust that regardless of what the governor orders or doesn't order... we will continue to mask up," Adler said.
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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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