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A tender brisket plate at The Salt Lick. A perfectly crafted latte at Jo's Coffee. A sudsy pint at the Saxon Pub.
Certain things are just part of the quintessential Austin experience—even if you're just passing through the airport.
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in recent years has become well known as a microcosm of what people love about Austin, from the live music that streams through the terminal to the local art that adorns the walls to the outposts of popular Austin shops and restaurants, including those named above.
A year after the pandemic brought the world to a halt—and in turn resulted in the lowest passenger numbers the airport had seen since it opened in 1999—and on the eve of spring break, the terminal on Thursday showed signs that the mini-Austin experience so many once treasured is beginning to reemerge.
At Tyler's, clips from former "Austin City Limits" tapings streamed on a TV inside the locally-focused apparel shop, while a socially distanced line queued for breakfast tacos at Tacodeli. In front of the Asleep at the Wheel stage—the largest of the airport's seven stages—plastic shields sat ready to safely welcome, and protect, performers.
"Such a large portion of what we offer is local and is brands that'll be familiar to you as a local to Austin," said Mandy McClendon, spokeswoman for ABIA. "While you may not have all the options, you certainly still will have many of them. For the most part, it does feel like the airport you know and love."
Masks are still required to be worn at the airport. (ABIA)
For those who haven't traveled during the pandemic, the first thing to know is that masks remain required throughout the airport and on flights. Despite Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to end Texas' statewide mask mandate on Wednesday, ABIA is included in an executive order issued by President Joe Biden and implemented by the Transportation Security Administration that requires face masks in airports.
"If you're in an airport you must be wearing a mask. We want to make sure we're communicating that to our passengers because we understand the conflicting advice can be a little bit confusing," McClendon said. "We don't want anyone to end up in a situation where they come to the airport without a mask and then they can't board their flight."
McClendon said that passenger traffic in April 2020 was down 96% from April 2019 and that overall passenger traffic in 2020 was down 63% from 2019, which was the airport's highest-ever passenger travel year. As a result, the airport gave its retail and restaurant vendors the flexibility to "open and close and provide staffing as they're able to and as makes sense for them while also ensuring we have a variety of options open throughout the terminal."
Live music has also continued in the form of small shows featuring only one or two musicians, aside from when the city was in Stage 5, when performances were suspended.
"Music is something that's very important to our terminal," McClendon said. "We have and continue to try to come up with creative ways to still make that a part of the experience."
Zack Morgan playing the piano during his set at the airport in 2020. (ABIA)
As passenger travel continues to increase and more people are vaccinated, McClendon said, expect even more of the things that people love about the airport to return—safely.
"We are an essential operation to Austin," McClendon said. "The more people that we have come through our doors, the more vigilant we want to be about things like social distancing and mask wearing and just making everyone feel comfortable in the terminal."
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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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The Moody Center, a $338 million, 530,000-square-foot multipurpose arena at the University of Texas at Austin, celebrated its topping out on Tuesday.
With the final beam placed, the arena's steel-frame structural phase—which involved more than 5.3 million pounds of steel—is complete.
"This past year has been full of unprecedented events, not to mention weather challenges, and yet the women and men working on this project continue to deliver," Moody Center General Manager and Senior Vice President Jeff Nickler said in a press release.
To celebrate the topping out Oak View Group, the development and investment firm behind the Moody Center will affix a tree to the final beam in keeping with the time-honored tradition.
The practice dates back to ancient Scandinavian religious rites, which involved placing a tree atop new buildings to appease tree-dwelling spirits displaced during the construction process, according to the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers in Washington D.C.
After the steel-frame structure phase, the development will move on to enclosing and finishing the interior of the Moody Center.
The arena is set to open next April and already has some major acts scheduled for its inaugural year, including The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, John Mayer and The Killers. It will replace the 43-year-old Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center and serve as the home of UT's men's and women's basketball games, among other sports and community events.
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