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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Five Austin companies joined Google's second Startups Black Founders Fund on Wednesday, earning $100,000 each as part of the $10 million initiative geared toward giving Black entrepreneurs access to funding for their startups.
The fund gave $100,000 to 50 founders nationwide, including Austin companies CustomerX.i, Journey Foods, Sandbox Commerce, The Mentor Method and Tadeblock.
The founders will receive the funding without giving up any ownership of their startups and will gain access to Google technical support including up to $120,000 in donated search Ads from Google.org and up to $100,000 in Google Cloud credits. The Austin companies will also join a select few—the fund is only two years old and last year rewarded 76 Black-led startups with up to $100,000 as well.
Google's Startup funds can be used to boost Black founders' companies into success—last year, founders raised up to $50 million in capital after recieving the funds, and 80% of the companies used their funds to create jobs.
Founders from last year's batch then paid it forward by nominating new companies and announcing the winners via Zoom.
Here's a look at those 5 founders in Austin:
Hakeem James- Customer X.I
Customer X.I founder Hakeem James wants to help small restaurants thrive.
Customer X.I founder Hakeem James wants to keep mom-and-pop shops alive. That's why he started his company to bridge "the gap between online and offline" and give restaurants and small businesses a centralized location to analyze their data against competitors.
"The question we ask internally: is it simple enough for my grandmother to use? For the record, my grandmother sometimes picks up the phone upside down," James told Microsoft.
The company's data can help businesses small and large better understand their customers—from their names to their drink choices—to build better relationships and customer loyalty.
But it hasn't been easy, especially as labor shortages and COVID safety policies affect restaurants during the pandemic. James said he heard about Google for Startups at Austin's entrepreneur hub, Capital Factory. He and the team will use the funding to create "freemium" plans as they seek to keep restaurants open.
"It has also allowed us to offer our products to restaurants that need it most on a freemium basis to keep their doors open and accelerate their growth when it has never been harder to do so," James said. "Being recognized and backed by Google is monumental for us; it is a signal to our partners of our growing success in the market and the expanded capacity we now have to serve our clients."
Riana Lynn- Journey Foods
Lynn said the startup fund will help level the playing field for Black entrepreneurs that may not get the funding they need.
"The Google for Startups Black Founders Fund is a strong step in increasing the significant discrepancies in funding to many groups of founders, especially founders of color," Lynn said. "The funds will be used to add more science and engineering talent to our team and improve our impact in supply chains."
The company takes a step further back in the food industry process by merging research and development for food companies. Through comprehensive food data, Journey Foods helps provide insights on ingredients, pricing, manufacturing, and supply chain information to companies across the food industry.
From suppliers to packaging companies, Journey Foods hopes to reduce waste and costs by streamlining the food creation process.
Sterling Smith- Sandbox Commerce
Sandbox Commerce CEO Sterling Smith wasn't given a heads-up when he earned a spot in the Black Startups Fund- instead, he thought he was in his final interview.
Smith, who founded the app company in 2018, expressed his gratitude for the funding.
"Everyone involved, I really appreciate you guys betting on Sandbox," Smith said. "I can tell my mom now, right?"
Sandbox Commerce looks to create simple apps for companies without any technical or coding skills needed. The company looks to especially help the underdogs, including small businesses or underrepresented companies, in bridging the gap between computer skills and entrepreneurs.
Janice Omadeke- The Mentor Method
The Mentor Method is a consulting firm that helps companies recruit and retain employees through mentorship. (The Mentor Method/Facebook)
The Mentor Method, founded by Janice Omadeke, has been featured by Forbes and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its multi-step method of promoting employee retention and fulfillment. Omadeke has also won Capital Factory's $100k Female Founder competition award.
The company focuses on inclusivity, closing opportunity gaps and building talent through its mentorship method, which involves a matching algorithm that brings employees and mentors quickly together. The Mentor Method has been used by high-profile programs including the Department of Education and Glassdoor.
Omadeke said the startup will use its fund to create jobs, including a Product Coordinator, and boost an employee benefits package.
"The Google for Startups Black Founders Fund will help us scale faster and address the core needs of companies seeking to retain their employees," Omadeke said.
Mbiyimoh Ghogomu- Tradeblock
Now a company used by tens of thousands, Tradeblock had humble beginnings—it was once just an Instagram page for sneakerheads.
Founder Mbiyimoh Ghogomu teamed up with childhood friends Tony Malveaux and Darren Smith to transform the page throughout the pandemic and create a network for sneaker lovers to enjoy. With their motto "Kicks as Currency," sneakerheads can trade sneakers without ever touching their piggy bank.
For Ghogomu, the company and Black Starters fund are both about one thing-fostering community.
"Getting recognized by Google as part of the Black Founders Fund is a game-changer for us," Ghogomu said. "My co-founders and team have been working really hard to disrupt the sneaker x tech space and inspire community building. The funds, relationships and overall support that Tradeblock is gaining will take us to the next level."
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Austinites will once again be able to take a nonstop flight to London as Austin-Bergstrom International Airport resumes transatlantic travel this fall.
Starting Oct. 13, British Airways will offer its direct flight from ABIA to London-Heathrow Airport three times a week on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The airline, which has been operating in Austin since 2013, had halted service at the start of the pandemic over a year ago.
"We can't wait to welcome our customers back on board our Austin flights and we are honored to be playing our part in reuniting families and friends with their loved ones after such a long time apart," said Marie Hilditch, British Airways' head of North America sales.
Safety protocols the airline is taking include:
- social distancing measures
- wearing of facemasks
- providing hand sanitizer stations
- cleaning all surfaces after every flight
- fully recycling the air once every two to three minutes through HEPA filters, which remove microscopic bacteria and virus clusters with over 99.9% efficiency
The announcement comes as COVID-19 testing requirements to enter the UK are scheduled to stop on Oct. 4. for vaccinated Americans.
Additionally, a Monday White House announcement allows fully vaccinated international travelers to enter the U.S. starting in early November with proof of a negative COVID-19 test. The ban, which was implemented in 2020, restricted travelers from a number of European countries, Iran and China throughout the pandemic.
With a goal of making healthy goodies available to the masses, HumanCo LLC has caught the attention of famous Austinites.
The Austin-based investment firm and holding company that incubates, acquires and scales consumer packaged health foods just closed a $35 million bridge funding round that included some well-known backers from the capital city and beyond according to co-founder and CEO Jason Karp.
Even since the beginning of its launch in May 2020, HumanCo had gained a new board of advisers member and an undisclosed investment from professional tennis superstar Venus Williams.
This most recent round welcomed a vetted round of investors who share a love of healthy food: co-founder of Austin-based private equity firm Vista Equity Partners Brian Sheth, Austin-based venture capital firm 8VC general partner Joe Lonsdale, actress Scarlett Johansson, Whole Foods Market Inc. co-CEO Walter Robb, model Cindy Crawford, Thrive Market co-founder and CEO Nick Green, San Francisco venture capital firm Jazz Venture Partners, former PepsiCo CEO and chairwoman Indra Nooyi, U.S. Open winner and former Austinite Andy Roddick, model and actress Brooklyn Decker, and Vital Proteins founder and CEO Kurt Seidensticker.
Founded in 2019, the company secured a $15 million Series A funding round in January 2020. Come late 2022, the company is planning "a much bigger" round of funding. According to HumanCo officials, targeting well-known influencers and celebrities was a deliberate choice—they have the influence money can't buy.
Some of the brands under the company's umbrella include organic, grain-free and gluten-free Snow Days Pizza bites, which feature Johansson as the creative director; wholesale gluten-free baked goods manufacturer Against the Grain Gourmet Foods and organic and plant-based ice cream brand Coconut Bliss.
The company employs 22 people, nine of which work in Austin at 98 San Jacinto Center. The rest of the employees are spread across at least four cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles, for the time being.HumanCo plans to hire around 10 more in the next year, according to Karp, and go public in "a few years." The company currently has two jobs open in Austin.
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