Ben Hasan is the market manager for the Sustainable Food Center, a local nonprofit that operates two area farmers' markets—one in downtown Austin and the other in Sunset Valley.
Even though foot traffic at both markets is down by as much as 70% and pandemic precautions continue to be necessary, Hasan is optimistic.
"Come on down, shop the markets," he said. "We are open, we have been open. We used to say 'rain or shine' and now we've got to add 'global pandemic' but we are here for y'all."
'Better than zero'
Since the onset of COVID-19, the SFC markets have had to make large-scale changes to accommodate customers in a safe way.
Regulations include capping capacity at 150 for the downtown market and 90 for the Sunset Valley market and requiring customers to wash their hands before entering and wearing a face mask while at the market. Vendors are also no longer permitted to offer food samples, must keep hand sanitizer at their station and are encouraged to minimize interactions.
Kris Olsen, owner of Milagro Family Farm, has been doing the downtown SFC market for 12 years and always looks forward to seeing his customers.(Laura Figi)
This is rough for some vendors, like Milagro Farms owner Kris Olsen, who said he misses being able to interact with his regular customers. "Before [COVID-19], I was hugging and kissing my customers," he said. "That's not going on now."
Olsen's sales are down 40% to 50% and he has lost over half of his contracts due to restaurant closures, some of which are permanent. "Before [COVID-19], it was pretty much I could sell eggs, many eggs, to whoever I wanted," he said. "Now I've got to work to make sure I sell them all."
But Olsen has been working at the market for 12 years and said he doesn't plan to stop anytime soon. "It's better than zero," he said. "The demand for eggs is still there so I'm selling my eggs. I'm thankful for that."
'Shifting to change'
SFC is a nonprofit and relies on weekly booth fees from vendors to pay staff and cover market costs. With a decrease in the number of vendors and customers, there is less money to go around.
The organization has also had to expand the monthly budget by thousands of dollars to accommodate COVID-19 precautions.
"There's a huge amount of uncertainty across the board," Hasan said. "There's a lot of shifting we're going to have to do to keep our market model sustainable and, yeah, that's nervous-making, but we've still got customer numbers and vendor numbers that are at a new, stable normal for COVID. In that sense, it's about shifting to change."
Not all farmers and ranchers have seen their sales decrease, however, especially if they offer products that were hard to come by at the beginning of the pandemic.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw across the board our markets were stocked," Hasan said. "We had food at a time in which you could not get things like eggs, bread and produce. We had that here because of the resiliency of local producers."
The boom at the beginning of the pandemic was short-lived for most vendors.
As customers are no longer permitted to eat in the market, prepared food vendors have seen better days.
Tamale Addiction manager Julio Toledano sells tamales both hot and frozen at the market.(Laura Figi)
But Julio Toldano, manager of Tamale Addiction, said he has been able to sell more frozen tamales to make up for the loss of catering opportunities and decrease in sales.
"I think [the farmer's market] is a very secure way to invest your money because if they do not stop in this situation, they will never stop for anything," he said.
Although the market is still adjusting to the new normal, many vendors are just happy to be there.
Cake and Spoon owner Melissa Brinckmann has been working at the market for 11 years. For now, her sales are consistent.
"We've been very fortunate," Brinckmann said. "Our customers have been very supportive and people seem to keep coming back."
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The Texas Senate Democratic Caucus is urging Gov. Greg Abbott to call an emergency special legislative session to consider a variety of gun restrictions and safety measures in the wake of a mass school shooting in Uvalde that left 19 children and two adults dead this week.
In a letter released Saturday morning, all 13 Senate Democrats demanded lawmakers pass legislation that raises the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21 years old. The Uvalde gunman was 18 and had purchased two AR-style rifles which he used in the attack.
The caucus is also calling for universal background checks for all firearm sales, “red flag” laws that allow a judge to temporarily remove firearms from people who are considered an imminent threat to themselves or others, a “cooling off period” for the purchase of a firearm and regulations on high capacity magazines for citizens.
“Texas has suffered more mass shootings over the past decade than any other state. In Sutherland Springs, 26 people died. At Santa Fe High School outside Houston, 10 people died. In El Paso, 23 people died at a Walmart. Seven people died in Midland-Odessa,” the letter reads. “After each of these mass killings, you have held press conferences and roundtables promising things would change. After the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, those broken promises have never rung more hollow. The time to take real action is now.”
Such laws are unlikely to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature, which has a track record of favoring legislation that loosens gun restrictions. Only the governor has the power to call lawmakers back into a special session for emergency work.
Asked about a special session at a Friday press conference in Uvalde, Abbott said “all options are on the table” adding that he believed laws would ultimately be passed to address this week’s horrors. However, he suggested laws would be more tailored toward addressing mental health, rather than gun control.
“You can expect robust discussion and my hope is laws are passed, that I will sign, addressing health care in this state,” he said, “That status quo is unacceptable. This crime is unacceptable. We’re not going to be here and do nothing about it.”
He resisted the idea of increasing the age to purchase a firearm, saying that since Texas became a state, 18-year-olds have been able to buy a gun.
He also dismissed universal background checks saying existing background check policies did not prevent the Santa Fe and Sutherland Springs shootings, which both happened while he has been in office.
“If everyone wants to seize upon a particular strategy and say that’s the golden strategy right there, look at what happened in the Santa Fe shooting,” he said. “A background check had no relevance because the shooter took the gun from his parents…Anyone who suggests we should focus on background checks as opposed to mental health, I suggest is mistaken.”
Since the massacre at Robb Elementary School, the governor’s comments about potential solutions have centered around increasing mental health services, rather than restricting access to firearms.
This story has been edited for length.
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Designs for stations along Project Connect’s Blue Line were presented this week, giving a detailed look at what part of the rail system extending from downtown to the airport could look like.
The planned stations that have gotten the latest focus include Waterfront, Travis Heights and Lakeshore stations past Lady Bird Lake.
At the Waterfront station, the preliminary design aims to prevent visual obstructions and save on costs. This is accomplished by a transit guideway that will lower from the bridge to a level station.
Heading onto East Riverside Drive, the light rail faces a curve requiring a slow down to about 10 miles per hour.
The Travis Heights station could involve relocating a pedestrian crosswalk zone at Alameda Drive to Blunn Creek. Since light rails can't effectively operate on a steep grade, this allows the transit guideway to avoid that.
From there, the rail will extend to the Norwood Park area, and though it will reach along the right-of-way zone, the park will be able to remain open.
A view of the Blue Line by Lady Bird Lake. (Project Connect)
The line involves some coordination with the Texas Department of Transportation. That's because the department is working on an intersection that will have to be built before the phasing of the section of the Blue Line involving an I-35 crossing.
When it comes to the safety of cyclists and walkers, design ideas include a pedestrian hybrid beacon by East Bouldin Creek that would provide a protected signal to cross. And for the intersection TxDOT is carrying out, Project Connect is working with them on pedestrian access across the intersection. It could involve shared use paths along the street and crossings beneath it.
This summer, the public can expect 30% of design and cost estimates to be released. Though the project was $7.1 billion when voters approved it in November 2020, the latest estimates factoring in inflation and supply chain constraints show it could ultimately be upwards of $10 billion.
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