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Austin health official concerned about bars "masquerading as restaurants" to stay open amid COVID surge
As local caseloads climb, Austin's top health official raised concerned about a recent trend of bars "masquerading as restaurants" to get around pandemic orders.
Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority, said bars offering "very minimal food services" have attracted large crowds on Sixth Street, and that they have remained open under a "loophole."
Although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott granted county judges the authority to reopen bars, under certain conditions, Travis County officials have not done so, citing the rising number of new COVID cases and related hospitalizations.
However, many local bars with on-site food service facilities, such as food trucks, have reclassified as restaurants, according to permit records from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Austonia reported in October that more than 200 bars had submitted paperwork proving they provided certain food services, allowing them to remain open at a reduced capacity.
This is concerning to Escott.
"We know the nature of a bar is that people are drinking alcohol," he said at a press conference on Thursday. "People are often face-to-face. Those two things combined for this pandemic creates a scenario that is very dangerous, particularly in a time when cases are rapidly increasing."
In Travis County, bars have only been allowed to reopen for a five-week period, from the end of the initial lockdown in mid-May through late June, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott imposed new statewide restrictions.
Although Escott acknowledged the burden of COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, he said the bar industry should "work hard to sort out how to do this better."
James S., a bartender and manager of a downtown bar who asked that the business not be named at the owner's request, said the bar did change its license to reclassify as a restaurant but that operations haven't changed much.
The bar, like many others around Austin, relies on food trucks to serve their grub.
"Licensed or not, it's the same because (food is) always available and we always close whenever the food trucks close regardless, so if there's no food available, we don't stay open," James said. "That was before everything had to be a restaurant as well."
James said the bar is strict to observe its sanitizing and mask policies and that he does not feel unsafe coming to work.
If bars had to shut down again, it would put a hole in his pocket.
"Being back open, we're trying to regain what we would have made, you know, especially being closed during South by Southwest," James said. "(Closing would) hurt my pocket a lot, because I'll have to go back to unemployment. Having to go back to that you know, that's not guaranteed. They tell you one thing, then you end up getting something else, and it's kind of hard to pay bills with."
Although COVID-19 cases are on the rise in many Texas jurisdictions, Abbott said earlier this week that another shut down is out of the question.
Bengie Beshear, co-owner of the Iron Bear, said in a September interview with Austonia that the business moved from West 8th Street to West 6th Street three weeks before the onset of COVID-19.
Until the pandemic arrived, business was booming. "Before COVID, on the weekends it was just constant, constant traffic," he said.
Once cases started occurring in Austin, Beshear said most customers complied with the new regulations, "but you still get the ones that come in late, they want to party and they want to, you know, act like it's still a bar and nothing's changed. Everything's changed and they have to remind themselves of that."
However, now that the bar has switched its license, Beshear has no intention of violating rules or operating his business in an unsafe way. He has seen bars forced to shut down in the area and said sustaining another shutdown would be devastating for the business.
"I'm on 6th Street, so my rent is sky high," Beshear said. "I've kind of drained all my options at this point. This is the kind of a last ditch thing with changing over to a restaurant. It'd be hard pressed to stay open much longer."
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17 years and three medals later, Osterman's last ride with USA softball is over. What's next for Cat?
Nearly two decades after her debut with the University of Texas and 17 years after her first Olympic gold, softball icon Cat Osterman stepped off the Olympic pitcher's mound for the last time with a silver medal to take back home.
Osterman, a three-time Olympian who has been called the "Michael Jordan of softball," will officially retire from the international realm at 38 after a decorated career that included Olympic golds, years of retirement and plenty of adversity—from a worldwide pandemic to dashed gold-medal dreams.
Osterman and her crew left Tokyo on a bittersweet note on Tuesday with a silver medal in hand.
Osterman with Team USA in 2008. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
Osterman in the final in 2021. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
After a year of sparse in-person training and over a decadelong hiatus, Team USA and Osterman flew to the finals. In five games, the team beat Italy (2-0), Canada (1-0), Mexico (2-0), Australia (2-1), and Japan (2-1).
Deja vu struck in the final match. On one side, Osterman and fellow 2008 Olympic teammate Monica Abbott took the mound; on the other was the 39-year-old Yukiko Ueno, a familiar foe who helped the team beat Team USA last go-round.
"Just like 13 years ago," Ueno said in a press conference, "we were facing each other in the final."
Ueno, who had lost hopes at gold to Osterman in '04, outpitched her longtime opponent with six scoreless innings as Team USA was held to just three hits. The same team that squandered their gold-medal hopes 13 years before had done it once again.
Your Tokyo 2020 Olympic Silver Medalists 🇺🇸#TokyoOlympics | @TeamUSA pic.twitter.com/MOMNOedHUd
— USA Softball Women's National Team 🇺🇸 (@USASoftballWNT) July 27, 2021
"There's a little bit of disappointment in not bringing home the gold since that's the eye on the prize when you go over there and you know you have a shot at it," Osterman told Austonia. "But more than anything, I'm very proud of the way our team handled everything that was part of this journey and not just the six games."
It's that very loss at the 2008 Olympics that partially motivated Osterman to get back on the mound. She officially put down the glove in 2015 after six seasons with the USSSA Pride, took time with family and began coaching at Texas State University.
Osterman helped ace Randi Rupp to greatness while a coach at Texas State University. (Active Voice Health/Twitter)
She thought her Olympic endeavors were well over—until talks of reinstating softball into the Games reentered the conversation.
"It wasn't until 2016 or 2017, that it ever crossed my mind to possibly put the USA uniform on again," Osterman said. "After the World Championships in 2010, I walked away, and I thought that my career on the international stage was done. So this was a pleasant kind of new opportunity."
Three years after facing any competition, Osterman was on the field once more with world-class athletes. Some, like Osterman and Abbott, had been playing together long enough to form a formidable "Fire and Ice" duo on the mound. Others had just graduated college.
Osterman said playing with a younger generation of athletes was one of the most rewarding aspects of this year's Games.
"It can be very different when you have 24- and 38-year-olds on the same field," Osterman said. "The adversity put us in some challenging positions and we came through with flying colors. And this group will forever be special just because what we had to go through is so different."
While on the mound, Osterman's job was to give the team a calm start. Off of the field, she felt her role had much of the same effect: she knew that new Olympic feeling, and she served as a deep breath to her first-time teammates.
"There's no words to explain how nervous and excited you get knowing that the whole world can be watching," Osterman. "I think using those emotions and figuring out how to get all our butterflies lined up and going in the right direction, so that way we were all moving together, was kind of my role outside of pitching."
We've heard her retire once before, but this time Osterman said she's gone for good—even from coaching. After her final time with Team USA on Sept. 27, she plans on returning to Austin, where she'll look to work for a nonprofit.
A gold and two silvers will have to do for one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. softball history.
"To be able to say you're a three-time Olympic medalist is a pretty special deal, right?" Osterman. "I played for a long time. But those are the pinnacle, in my mind, and kind of what elicits the dream to keep playing."
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Hospitals are facing a "significant" increase in admissions of pregnant women due to COVID-19 complications, Austin-Travis County health officials say, revealing what could be a long-term side effect of the virus.
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes met with three maternal medicine specialists on Monday morning to warn of yet another COVID-19 Delta variant concern: severe cases of the disease affecting unvaccinated mothers-to-be.
The doctors said unvaccinated pregnant women face an increased risk of preterm births, long-term effects, preeclampsia, ICU stays, stillbirths, being put on life support and even death if they are unvaccinated.
"We are really concerned that we are not getting that population of folks to hear this message of the safety of vaccines, so today we're assembled, one and all to say, wear a mask and please get vaccinated," Walkes said. "Vaccinations are the way to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations and death."
Medical Director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at St. David's Women's Center of Texas Dr. Kimberly DeStefano said 95% of pregnant women admitted with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, stressing that all pregnant and lactating women should get the vaccine not only to protect themselves but to protect their babies from infection, which can be passed through breastmilk or birth.
"We know that the earlier in pregnancy you are vaccinated, the more antibodies are present at the time of birth for the infant," DeStefano said. "This is something that's very important, both during the pregnancy and postpartum."
Catching COVID-19 while pregnant can cause adverse effects on the baby, particularly because it increases the risk of preterm births. Baylor Scott & White Maternal Obstetrics Chief of Maternal Medicine Dr. Jessica Ehrig, said that preterm births are one of the "biggest impacts" on childhood development.
"We know that (preterm births) can have long-term effects depending on how early a baby's born," Ehrig said. "It increases the risk for long term respiratory issues, for blindness sometimes (and) for neurologic development delays."
Since mid-July, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on a steep rise that sent the city back to recommending Stage 4 guidelines. As the seven-day rolling average of hospitalizations surpassed 50 admissions, Stage 5 guidelines could be on the horizon. The city reported 54 new admissions and 546 total new cases on Friday.
Delta is more contagious than chickenpox, Walkes said, and even vaccinated individuals can catch and spread the virus without symptoms. The group of doctors asked everyone, especially pregnant women, to mask while in public as local hospitals pass the Stage 5 threshold.
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