More than 100 people in Travis County have died of COVID-19 in the last four weeks. At the same time, for many in Austin, life feels back to pre-pandemic times.
As we approach the two-year anniversary of the discovery of the first case of the virus in China, Austin has assumed a split personality: for some, life is proceeding as normal. For others, we are still in the midst of a crisis as Travis County has been in Stage 5, the highest level of COVID risk, for over a month.
With ICUs filled with unvaccinated people, it's led the summer surge to be labeled a "pandemic of the unvaccinated" by health officials including White House Chief Medical Adviser Anthony Fauci less than a week ago. But for those vaccinated and even some choosing not to get the shot, it's back to old routines with restaurants, bars and music venues welcoming people with open arms—some requiring a mask.
At a Jester King Brewery Thursday night bluegrass event, Kate Richter, a local attorney, told Austonia that she and her husband are both vaccinated and feel comfortable taking their kids, who are all ineligible for the vaccine, to outdoor venues and wearing masks indoors.
"Even though they say the Delta variant is worst for kids, I think they need to have a normal life," Richter said, adding she was more than happy to have them back at school.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, some are less than worried about taking any sort of precautions. Austin visitor from Dallas, Sean Edrington, has chosen not to get the COVID vaccine, citing his good health and having COVID antibodies.
Sean Edrington traveled from Dallas to visit Austin's Rainey Street. (Austonia)
Out on Rainey Street on a Saturday night, Edrington said he doesn't feel he is putting anyone at risk by going out since his circle consists of all young people.
"I think you should let people make their own choices as long as you're not hurting other people," he said.
But not everyone is ready to jump back into the old times. James Walsh, who is training for his first marathon, recently readopted taking COVID safety precautions.
"I got kind of lackadaisical about (taking precautions) prior to the Delta variant bringing it roaring all back," Walsh said. "But I've rediscovered my discipline."
James Walsh is COVID-19 vaccinated but is still taking safety precautions. (Abe Asher)
As the weather cools down going into fall, cases and hospitalizations are declining in Austin. And with kids back on campus, it's looking to feel pretty normal in the city for most.
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After months of speculation, a new report says political personality Beto O'Rourke is mulling a run for Texas governor that he will announce later this year.
Sources tell Axios the former congressman is preparing his campaign for the 2022 election, where he will likely vie for the position against incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. The only other candidate that has announced he will take on Abbott for governor is former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West—no Democrats have announced they are running as of yet.
"No decision has been made," Axios reports David Wysong, O'Rourke's former House chief of staff and a longtime adviser, said. "He has been making and receiving calls with people from all over the state."
A new poll from The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler shows O'Rourke is narrowing the gap between himself and Abbott's prospects for governor. In the poll, 37% said they'd vote for O'Rourke over Abbott, while 42% said they'd vote for Abbott.
Abbott has been in the hot seat due to his handling of COVID-19 and the signing of landmark legislation into law, including new abortion and voting rights laws; 54% of poll respondents voted they think the state is headed in the "wrong direction." Still, Texas hasn't had a Democrat as governor since the 90s.
O'Rourke's people-focused approach to the 2018 Senator race, which he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz, gave him a widespread following and many hoped he'd throw his hat into the ring since he said he was considering it earlier this year.
"We hope that he's going to run," Gilberto Hinojosa, the state chair of the Democratic Party, told Axios. "We think he'll be our strongest candidate. We think he can beat Abbott because he's vulnerable."
Austin rapper Jordi Esparza may not have won the 2021 Red Bull Batalla, the world's largest Spanish freestyle rap competition, but for a spirited two rounds, the 22-year old Mexican native looked like he had every right to.
On Saturday evening in Los Angeles, the event itself looked like Cobra Kai meets Star Search with graphics adding a very Batman Beyond aesthetic. Over a dozen rappers hoping to represent the U.S. in the international round of the competition took to the stage with in-your-face jabs at accents, sexual orientation and odors, among other things.
This was Esparza's second rodeo; he had placed third at the 2020 National Finals, automatically securing him a spot this year.
However, things were different this year. He was not nervous about the contest. Unlike in 2020, when he made his Red Bull Batalla debut, the anxiety of the event led him to "feeling so bad."
Affecting a casual calm, the locally-based landscaper said he just felt "so relaxed, so happy" and primarily wanted to "enjoy everything."
Choosing his first-round opponent, Esparza, whose stage name is Jordi, elected to go against LA-based Boss.
Esparza freestyled an attack on his opponent's weight and cholo style of dress.
Boss—bracketing his Latin freestyle with English appeals to the crowd—mocked Jordi's lack of education, made fun of how clean Jordi's shoes looked and suggested that Jordi just came back from a Footlocker.
That first round went to Jordi.
But his next opponent Eckonn would prove to be his undoing.
Eckonn compared Jordi to Hannah Montana, while Jordi soulfully explained that he had learned from the best.
Esparza's verbal dexterity is matched by a rattling rhythm and a game face that is as mawkish as it is mockish. The overall effect is that of an underdog with bite.
Eckonn beat Esparza in that round with the overall championship going to Palm Beach-based rapper Reverse.
However, Esparza was just happy to be there. He recently told Austonia going to the finals again was a dream come true—a pinnacle that he said he won't know how to top.
With his nimble jabs and sneaky prowess, honed from pop culture and the swagger of a young working man hungry to be more, Jordi Esparza is just getting started.